Back-to-school: Will retailers' bets pay off?

As students across the country trade in their backpacks for beach balls, retailers are already plotting how to reel finicky teenagers into their stores for the critical back-to-school selling season. And for some, it could be their final exam.

Contrary to last year's back-to-school period, when teen stores were scaling back inventories amid dim hopes for the category, they're taking a more aggressive stance on 2015.

An Aeropostale store
Susana Gonzalez | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Several external factors indicate that teens and their parents have more money to spend on these items. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, 4.7 million teens between the ages of 16 and 19 were employed as of May, up 5 percent from the prior year. Though consumer confidence fell short of expectations last month, its reading of 95.4 marked a 13-point increase over the prior year.

And early research from the National Retail Federation, to be released Tuesday, found that 29 percent of households with children between the ages of 6 and 17 plan to spend more on back-to-school shopping this year. That's up from 24 percent last year.

Additionally, each company is taking steps to make their brands more relevant with teens. After taking a $27 million writedown to dispose of old merchandise, management at Abercrombie & Fitch told investors last month that they're confident that trends will continue to improve in the second quarter and back half.

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At Aéropostale, which is trying to attract fashion-forward teens with its secondary brands, CEO Julian Geiger is doubling down on the stores' merchandise, increasing the amount of inventory at each location.

And American Eagle and Urban Outfitters, which have emerged as leaders in the ailing sector, are hoping to further capitalize on the momentum they've built over the past few months.

"There is a sense of urgency in the teen segment [to show] some level of improvement after two years of basically dreadful results," said Eric Beder, an analyst at Wunderlich Securities. "I don't, frankly, think there's going to be much changing in terms of what actually happens."

Testing the turnaround

As teenagers have shifted their shopping habits toward trendier fast-fashion retailers, each of the teen names has taken a different track to right their businesses. The biggest laggard in the space continues to be Aéropostale, whose share price has nearly been cut in half, to below $2, over the past year.

Though analysts have noted more attractive product at the teen retailer, including the line by YouTube star Bethany Mota, they remain unconvinced that a turnaround is taking hold. The company's most recent blow was delivered Thursday, when merchandise chief Emilia Fabricant exited the company.

Though management reiterated that it's well-positioned for better results in the second half, analysts were more cautious.

"Ms. Fabricant's departure likely signals that first-quarter weakness has extended well into [the second quarter], reinforcing our caution on a near-term turn," Jefferies analyst Randal Konik wrote in a note to investors.

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Abercrombie's share price has also been halved over the past year, though they're trading near $22. In addition to improving its merchandise mix, where it's toning down its emphasis on logo product, Abercrombie is doing away with its sexed-up marketing and revamping its stores.

But while trends at the company improved in the most recent quarter—thanks to its California-centric Hollister brand—its same-store sales still declined 8 percent. Comparisons will be easier for the retailer in the second half, which analysts said should help them get a read on where Abercrombie stands moving forward.

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"The next meaningful catalyst will be the setting of the back-to-school assortment," Guggenheim Securities analyst Howard Tubin told investors. "At that point, we'll be able to see how both brands have evolved … and how customers react to the change."

American Eagle and Urban Outfitters are considered front runners in the teen set—a trend Beder expects to continue into back-to-school.

Analysts have lauded American Eagle's updated women's tops and denim assortments, adding that because many of its popular styles can be easily transitioned into cold-weather outfits, trends there seem sustainable.

Urban Outfitters, whose namesake label had been criticized for having too many styles and redundancies in its merchandise, is also showing signs of life. Stifel Nicolaus analyst Richard Jaffe said that although there's still work ahead, including scaling back markdowns, "We believe the brand is on the mend and expect meaningful improvement in the second half."

Beder added that trends at Guess, whose North American unit has posted negative same-store sales results for the past 18 quarters, could pick up if its momentum in denim continues. Although the casual athleisure trend continues to dominate apparel sales, retailers including Guess and American Eagle have recently noted traction in blue jeans.

'Potential for significant carnage'

Countering these trends, however, is what Beder considers one of the biggest challenges to the sector: The fact that today's teens view clothing as a cheap commodity, and therefore, they'd rather money on technology and experiences they can share on social media.

"To me this is a very difficult market because the customer just doesn't care that much," he said.

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Other issues confronting the teen set is that, unlike Christmas, there is no deadline for consumers to make back-to-school purchases, Beder said. Therefore, they can play chicken with retailers and wait until merchandise goes on sale.

On a larger level, he said, there are still too many names in the space, adding that if retailers' back-to-school bets don't pay off, "We could have another round of bankruptcies."

"There's potential for significant carnage," he said.