The nation's biggest retailers are betting on exclusive lines -- from Macy's (M) Tommy Hilfiger collection for girls to bohemian-inspired fashions from Disney (DIS) star Selena Gomez at Kmart (SHLD) -- to ring up sales for the back-to-school period, the second biggest selling season after the winter holidays.
Merchants are also targeting kids and teens where they wile away the hours -- online -- with Facebook marketing programs, digital campaigns and video blogs designed to both entertain and stoke a social-shopping experience tailor-made for the tech-savvy generation.
But merchants have their work cut out for them as consumers, still grappling with a tepid economy, are in a cautious buying mood.
Some manufacturers and retailers have had to pass along steeper cotton costs on products. So whether shoppers will feel ready to shell out for higher-priced T-shirts and jeans is a wild card this year.
As consumers' spending appetite for the back-to-school season has yet to come into sharp focus, Sears has come prepared with affordable merchandise that reflects a "value proposition," as well an expanded layaway program, Mark Snyder, chief marketing officer for Kmart, told DailyFinance during a press preview in New York. The question, he said, is will shoppers be in a buying mood or "will they march in place?"
From Material Girl to Tommy Girl
Macy's new back-to-school clothing lines address teens with a preppie girlish aesthetic and ones with an edgy sensibility.
"Each one of these brands speak to the young consumer in a little bit different way," Molly Langenstein, executive vice president of fashion and new business development for Macy's, told DailyFinance. With the Tommy Girl line, for one, Macy's hopes to fill a void in its clothing mix for 12- to 18-year-old girls with a preppie vibe. "We think that's an opportunity for us -- the girl that wants to wear the Oxford dresses, ditsy prints with a feminine and preppie sensibility."
It will be sold on the juniors floor and in 150 Macy's stores, with prices ranging from $32 for T-shirts to $129 for outerwear. "It's very different than the design aesthetic of Material Girl," she says.
Indeed it is. Macy's launched the Material Girl line by Madonna and her 15-year-old daughter, Lourdes, last year, reflecting her "fearless sense of style," the department store says. Material Girl also takes a cue from Madonna's iconic '80s looks and updates them.
The clothing line expands into beauty products such as body lotions, mists and nail polish in mid-August, and for the fall will include denim, bedding and intimate apparel. It's priced low for a department store, between $7 and $25. That's because with this line, the retailer is going after the fast-fashion business dominated by retailers like H&M and Forever 21.
Where Your Wardrobe Meets the Web
Macy's is also injecting retail-tainment to its back-to-school merchandising with Wendy, an original Web series about a girl and her romantic life from the producers of Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries, to showcase its fall fashions. Weekly webisodes will air on Macy's MStyleLab Facebook page, with a behind-the-scenes style video offering a glimpse of how the characters' wardrobes bring to life the hottest back-to-school fashions.
Viewers will receive Macy's fashion recommendations based on the characters' signature styles via "on-screen trend lists."
Kmart Courts the Multicultural Audience
Kmart is expanding its in-store layaway program during the back-to-school season on Kmart.com, allowing college students and their parents to shop online and stretch their payments out over four weeks.
With a big footprint in urban markets, Kmart's back-to-school campaign includes the bold courtship of a multicultural audience, particularly Hispanic shoppers. It includes Selena Gomez's Dream Out Loud fashion line, which includes items like bohemian-trendy plaid, ruffle shirts, and jeggings, a jeans-leggings hybrid.
What's more, Kmart's new Latina Smart Facebook page spotlights blog posts from five Hispanic women who discuss topics ranging from Latin culture to "whether it's too early to wear white in the season," Snyder said.
"And as tween girls are all about bling accessories," there's the Rebecca Bonbon line with items like sequin and glitter tote bags for about $4.
Overall, embellished denim, as well as skate shoes and hoodies with graphic treatments for boys, are among the key fashion trends for the season, Snyder said.
Monitoring how Facebook user-engagement turns into actual retail purchases is a tricky task for merchants, Snyder said. Kmart's upcoming shoppable videos could help change that. To be launched on Facebook, they'll allow consumers to cursor over a garment worn by models in the video and "buy that dress," Snyder said.
Sears Woos Mom, Ups Style Ante
Meanwhile, Kmart's sister chain, Sears, is wooing moms this back-to-school season with a "Make This Year Amazing" theme that incorporates social media and digital marketing.
"We know that moms love their smart phones," Tom Aiello, divisional vice president of Sears Holdings, told DailyFinance, "which is why Sears offers a wide choice of mobile apps to make back-to-school simple and convenient for moms on the go."
"While we are speaking to Moms for back to school, we're still concentrating on a younger demographic with new and relevant brands," he says.
It also has high hopes that its new website, SearsStyle.com, will send the message that the chain is a "fashion destination" for back to school, amid the ongoing style-upgrade of its clothing mix, Aiello says.
The site offers what it calls the latest stories and trends from the world of fashion. A trip to SearsStyle.com's home page turned up a real-life New York City teen sporting a Sears outfit and clickable options to buy her get up.
And this season, Sears is shining a spotlight on American Star, an exclusive juniors line with an "uptown bohemian feel," as well as BONGO, a collection with a "varsity prep feeling" that includes the hot denim looks of the season, Aiello says.
"The super-stretchy jeans --jeggings -- have become a staple in the juniors wardrobe," he says.
J.C. Penney Gets into 'Video Hauling'
J.C. Penney (JCP) is all about digital merchandising and marketing this back-to-school season.
For one, the retailer is using "video hauling" to up its fashion cred. That's when stylish teens give their stamp of approval to a retailer's clothing assortment -- often with testimonials on their shopping trips -- with video blogs that can be found everywhere from YouTube and Facebook to retailers' websites.
Via J.C. Penney's Haul Nation marketing push, three trendy teens are sharing their passion for Penney's fashions and impart style advice with hauls on the jcpteen Facebook page. Shoppers can also send in their personal video blogs for a chance to become guest editors for Seventeen magazine.
"It's about engaging that teen," Kate Coultas, corporate communications senior manager for J.C. Penney says. "They want to be talked to by their peers."
And tapping into the burgeoning trend to link entertainment to purchases, the retailer has launched an exclusive StarDoll clothing and accessories line in 300 stores that's based on Stardoll.com, a tween/teen site where girls play online fashion and dress-up games, to spur back-to-school sales.
"Shoppers can go online to Stardoll.com and create a MeDoll [a virtual avatar fashion doll] and dress her in virtual J.C. Penney Stardoll outfits from the site's online Pretty n' Love boutique," Coultas says.
Beyond fashion, retail pundits say tablet computers are the must-have consumer electronic for back to school, and this season they'll be purchased for younger kids -- even those in middle school.
Indeed, Best Buy (BBY) has been seeing parents come into stores to investigate which tablet computer will best meet their child's needs from an educational enhancement standpoint -- be it for math, art or photography, a spokesperson says. Parents are "looking beyond entertainment."
The retailer has singled out the new Samsung Galaxy Tablet, Asus Eee Pad Transformer and HP TouchPad as "the three hot tablets," the spokesperson says.
Back-to-School Exclusives: Retailers Pin Hopes on Signature Lines, Online Strategies