Top executives at traditional retailers have felt the strain of quarter after quarter of disappointing results, and many of those companies have undergone upheaval in their top ranks.
This month, the chief executive of Aéropostale, Thomas P. Johnson, agreed to step down and be succeeded by his predecessor, Julian R. Geiger. In January, the chief executive of American Eagle, Robert L. Hanson, left the company after only two years in the position. And that same month, Abercrombie & Fitch split the role of chairman and chief executive under pressure from investors.
In addition to changes in the teenage-specific landscape, retailers across a range of categories are learning how to manage a back-to-school season that has shifted significantly in recent years. While still a crucial season for retailers, its window has become less delineated, sometimes starting a bit later and often lasting past the beginning of the school year.
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"The grave mistake was to annually assume that the back-to-school shopper was going to show up like clockwork in July and buy goods in that time frame," Mr. Morris of BMO said.
Analysts say that retailers appear to have learned that lesson, and have planned their inventory accordingly, often by ordering fewer items and focusing on their margins.
"Back-to-school is important, and people want to have it be successful, but each year, it seems it's a little bit harder to do as well as you did before," said Richard Jaffe, an analyst at Stifel. "The peak becomes less of a peak."
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In recent days, executives at a variety of retailers, including Target, Macy's and American Eagle, have given some encouraging signals in their quarterly earnings calls that the back-to-school season is off to a good start. But many experts are calling for a lackluster period regardless.
"Back in the day, we ate three square meals a day, and now what's trending is grazing," Ms. Chen said. "I think shopping is kind of similar. You are constantly shopping throughout the year, and in smaller ways. But I think that's something that affects teens and women — it's a larger trend, period."
—By Elizabeth A. Harris and Rachel Abrams, The New York Times