Chances are there will be little brand envy when American kids head back to school this fall. On June 16, ICSC released its projections for the second most important shopping season of the year, which it defines as lasting from mid-July through mid-September, and it appears consumers' focus will continue to be on saving money.

The back-to-school season can account for up to 15 percent of retailers' annual sales, as school-age kids stock up on stationary supplies and renew their wardrobes and college-age kids prepare for dorm living. It is also an early barometer for the all important holiday shopping season. This year, the season is taking on even greater importance as analysts will look to the back-to-school sales as an indication of whether the U.S. economy will regain momentum in the second half of 2009.

There have been some indications that U.S. consumers might be loosening their purse strings. According to a survey completed by TNS Retail Forward, a Columbus, Ohio–based consulting firm, in May, 46 percent of consumers planned on buying only those things they deemed necessities compared to 50 percent in August 2008. Approximately 18 percent said they planned to buy only those items needed in the near term—last year, the figure was 25 percent. In addition, ICSC reported that same-store sales have picked up a bit in recent weeks. After declining through the first half of June, year-over-year same-store sales rose 0.6 percent for the week ending June 27 and 0.5 percent for the week ending July 4.

But taking into account lack of overall consumer confidence, those hoping for any kind of a robust rebound this summer are likely to be disappointed. In May, the personal savings rate for U.S. consumers rose to 6.9 percent, the highest on record since December 1993. For most of 2007 and 2008, the personal savings rate was near zero. Though same-store sales figures for June are yet to be released, Thomson Reuters estimates they will register a 4.8 percent drop without Wal-Mart's sales results (in April, Wal-Mart opted to stop reporting same-store sales). By some accounts, retailers, expecting a slow season, have cut back on merchandise orders by up to 20 percent compared to the summer of 2008.

As a result, ICSC is estimating same-store sales during the 2009 back-to-school season will rise about 1 percent—far below the annual average of 4.7 percent recorded between 1993 and 2008. But even that figure might be too optimistic, given the fact that Americans still don't feel this recession has reached its peak, says James C. Bieri, president and CEO of the Bieri Co., a Detroit-based retail real estate consulting firm.

"I am not certain there will be an increase this year," he notes. "Although generally families still spend money on their children and teenagers still have their own budgets, I wouldn't be surprised if there is a fair amount of economizing."

Those stores most likely to benefit from back-to-school shopping trips will once again be discounters, including Wal-Mart, Target, TJ Maxx and Kohl's. ICSC predicts that apparel stores, along with booksellers, will see the greatest increase in sales, at 2.5 percent. But many of the high-priced specialty apparel chains might actually end up having a rather disappointing season, according to Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a New Canaan, Conn.–based research firm. For example, in May, upscale teen apparel seller Abercrombie & Fitch posted a 28 percent drop in same-store sales, while the Gap, which offers more affordable price points, posted a decline of only 6 percent. Overall, in May, chain apparel stores posted a same-store sales decline of 5 percent compared to a decline of 4.5 percent for all U.S. chain stores. The sector has not had one month of positive sales results since November 2007.

A recent survey from America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C.–based consumer behavior research firm, found that mall-based apparel retailers were the worst hit by the current downturn in consumer spending. Americans are now spending half of what they used to on clothing and accessories.

"Everybody is very price-conscious and the days of paying a lot of money for a shirt with a particular logo on it are not with us anymore," says Johnson. "We think this will not be a great season. On an aggregate basis, we think the industry would do well to eke out even a slight gain."