Retailers start to get ready for school

Summer has barely begun, but retailers are already focusing on back-to-school sales, which are expected to be especially critical this year as consumers rein in spending.

The back-to-school season is the industry’s second-biggest selling period after Christmas. And as new fall merchandise starts to arrive in stores this week, competition is expected to be fiercest in the middle market, among chains such as Kohl’s Corp., J.C. Penney Co. and Macy’s Inc.

Many of their clients, squeezed by high gasoline prices and the weak economy, are turning to discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with whom the chains can’t compete on price. Instead, they rely heavily on unique merchandise and attention-grabbing marketing to attract consumers.

They could face an uphill battle. Sales of back-to-school and college merchandise between July 4 and Labor Day are expected to be flat to slightly lower this year, following a year-earlier increase of 21 percent to $65.7 billion. Some industry research suggests consumers may minimize apparel purchases this year in favor of necessities like textbooks and computers.

Nor is there a clear must-have electronic gadget likely to nudge parents or teens to splurge, says Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. That’s a switch from the past two years, when gear like cellphones and MP3 players gave back-to-school sales a major boost.

Kohl’s hopes to drum up interest by kicking off what it calls its biggest back-to-school campaign ever next week, a week earlier than usual. This month, it will launch an exclusive line of girls’ apparel and accessories by singer Avril Lavigne.

The chain’s ads will feature celebrities ranging from Lenny Kravitz to teen actress Hayden Panettiere, who recall favorite fashion moments. Kohl’s is soliciting similar videos from young shoppers through a contest on social-networking site Facebook.

J.C. Penney is launching five exclusive or private-label brands for back-to-school this month, the largest number it has ever launched simultaneously. ”It’s a huge time of the year for us, and we’re spending against it,” says Mike Boylson, Penney’s chief marketing officer.

The new lines include Fabulosity apparel and accessories, designed by former model Kimora Lee Simmons, and Dorm Life, a line of home furnishings aimed at college students. To promote the lines, Penney created an online game called ”DorkDodge,” in which a girl has to navigate a thicket of undesirable boys to get her dream guy. It also plans to air a 60-second spot in theaters recreating scenes from the 1985 teen film ”The Breakfast Club,” which is having a resurgence.

Macy’s is also targeting young shoppers. Next month, it begins filming a documentary that follows five young adults as they roadtrip across the U.S., visiting 12 cities and meeting musicians and music producers – all while wearing clothing by Macy’s American Rag label. The 10-episode show, titled ”Ragged Road,” will begin airing on in September. It will feature live video blogs.