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BACK-TO-SCHOOL SHOPPING REALLY ADDS UP

In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, it's parents who are getting a refresher course in the economics of back-to-school shopping.

Outfitting just one elementary school-age child for the new year of reading, writing and arithmetic costs an average of $300, according to the American Express Retail Index. For a high-schooler, the average tab rises to $408.

The International Council of Shopping Centers/Gallup Back-To-School Shopping Survey puts the bill even higher -- $427 per child for school clothing and supplies.

While apparel and footwear will command the largest slice of the back-to-school budget pie, these are good times for folks in the school and office supply industry. The School & Home Office Products Association (SHOPA) estimates that the average bill for school supplies (paper, pencils, pens, folders, etc.) will top $119.

Even preschoolers will impact the family budget, according to SHOPA, with parents picking up an average of $65.60 worth of supplies, while the typical bill for a high school student will total $84.20.

And if those numbers seem budget-busting, keep in mind that they don't include the optional expenses of extra curricular activities such as musical instrument purchases/rental fees and various sports gear.

"It always catches me by surprise," said Donna, a Buffalo mother of three boys, who shepherded the trio through the corridors of the Walden Galleria last week on their annual school shopping odyssey.

A teacher herself, Donna, who asked that her last name not be used, said apparel purchases will eat up the bulk of her back-to-school budget this year.

"These guys have outgrown just about everything they wore last year, so we'll need to start from scratch," she said. "And they are so hard on their clothes, there are no hand-me-downs," she said.

Lynn Peters and her 14-year-old daughter, Jen, were on a similar mission. The soon-to-be freshman has outgrown her middle school wardrobe "both physically and psychologically," according to her mother.

"She's ready for high school clothes, and she's already picked out what she wants. I'm just here to give final approval to sizes and to pay," Mrs. Peters said as she was steered into her daughter's new favorite store, Banana Republic.

For parents of teens with a taste for higher end clothing, there is a bit of a silver lining to the wallet-draining apparel needs of their children -- more kids are contributing to the effort.

On average, teens will chip in $108 of their own to the back-to-school buying binge, to help defray their upscale clothing desires.

For Paul Woldarczak, it was hardware, not soft goods, that had him gripping his wallet last week as he emerged from the Gateway 2000 computer store off Galleria Drive in Cheektowaga. Like a lot of parents, Woldarczak's back-to-school shopping list, for his 11-year-old son, includes a personal computer, with all the accessories.

"This is now a necessity," he said. "I put off buying it last year, but we're to the point where he needs access to a PC a few times a week. We've got to bite the bullet."

For the retail world, the back-to-school shopping phenomenon is second only to Christmas in terms of dollars spent and shopper head counts. And while late August and early September are peak times for stocking up on fall clothing and school supplies, some shoppers really stretch things out.

"Back-to-school used to be concentrated in a six week (August/September) period. Now it can start in July and stretch into October or November," said Kurt Barnard, a New Jersey-based retail consultant.

Barnard said he expects a strong back-to-school season this year, with most retailers reporting 5 percent to 7 percent sales increases from 1997. He predicted that stores with moderate prices, such as Kmart, Sears, Target, Wal-Mart, T.J. Maxx and Marshall's will see the largest year-over-year sales jumps.

While the discounters will attract a lot of traffic, the No. 1 venue for back-to-school buying is the mall, according the annual American Express Fall Retail Index. More than half of those surveyed said a mall trip was in their plans, with 38 percent heading to department stores and 32 percent going to discount venues.

Jim Soos, general manager of the Walden Galleria, the area's largest mall, said he's seen a steady increase in shopper traffic.

"We've been having a strong year overall, so I'd expect the back-to-school period to continue to reflect that," he said. "I think our tenants have a lot of fresh, exciting fall merchandise this year, which will increase the draw."

The back-to-school shopping season will also be aided by New York State's fourth sales tax holiday, which will run Sept. 1-7. For those seven days, most clothing and footwear purchases of less than $500 will be exempt from the state's 4 percent sales tax, with most local taxing bodies also lifting their taxes for the one-week period.

Erie County will lift its 4 percent sales tax, while Niagara County will put its 3 percent tax on hold. All local governments in Western New York are participating in the tax exempt week which is timed to coincide with the heaviest portion of the back-to-school period.

The Niagara Factory Outlets in the Town of Niagara has been helping parents get into the back-to-school frame of mind by participating in a national educational campaign called "America Goes Back to School."

In addition to the traditional school apparel fashion shows, the mall is holding reading seminars and has collected school supplies which will be donated to local schools, libraries and charities supporting families who can't afford to buy required supplies.

"It's another way for us to participate in the back-to-school process," said Tony Christopher, the mall's assistant marketing director.