Searching for style, at a steal

Betsy Banning shops for shoes for her son at Journeys in Citadel Mall as the back-to-school shopping season begins. Converse All-Stars are among the top sellers for back to school, merchants say.

Eighteen-year-old Jessica Wilson and her younger sister Jennifer, hit Citadel Mall with shopping fever, ready to score.

Three hours later they were headed out, each lugging a handful of shopping bags loaded with $5 jackets, $2 tank-tops and low-priced jeans.

The Wilson sisters and a friend, visiting from Dandridge, Tenn., said high gas prices and a weak economy forced them to find ways to cut costs, including sharing a trip to the mall.

"We came in threes," Jessica said. "We could have brought two cars, but I don't really have as much money to spend on clothes for school, so we do have to carpool more often."

The back-to-school shopping season started last week in earnest and will reach a frenzy this weekend as the tax-free holiday stretches through Sunday. It all begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday, and the list includes a multitude of items. Corey Lush manages all area Journeys shoe stores and said he didn't expect back-to-school purchases to kick in until this weekend, but many have already started shopping. He said he's sold more layered Converse All-Stars than he can keep on the shelf.

"The warehouse is out. They're like, 'Don't even call.'"

Christa Wilcox, a sales associate at Belk's Mount Pleasant Towne Centre location, said Lilly Pulitzer polo shirts, Lucky Brand jeans and tops with ruffles are her top-selling items. She waved her hand over a section of clothing where 15-year-old Hope Foskey flipped through hanging shirts.

Foskey said she was visiting from Charlotte.

Her items: "7 for All Mankind, Citizen (for Humanity) and Lucky jeans are the most popular brands," she said. "I guess because they look kind of expensive. And they have a cleaner cut and they fit."

Those brands run from an average of $60 to about $200.

Foskey said she plans to attend a private school this fall, where she will have to wear a collared shirt. To find those, she said she will be shopping in stores such as Hollister Co. and Ralph Lauren.

At Citadel Mall, passersby strolled the storefronts, some resting between forays. Fifteen-year-old Santiago Ponce sat with his father Alex Ponce and 15-year-old cousin Camilla Cresp, surrounded by bags from Abercrombie & Fitch and The Gap. All three were visiting family in the Lowcountry from Ecuador and Peru and came to the mall as part of a nine-person group.

Santiago pointed to his father's Ralph Lauren shirt, "A polo shirt like that was 70 euros at home." He explained that the decreasing value of the dollar makes it easier to buy higher-quality clothing in the United States than is available at home.

Cathleen Callison, 18, walked through the mall holding a single bag. She said she knows what's in style. For girls that includes small vests, Chuck Taylor shoes, and environmentally friendly clothing. She said she owns a new Blackberry Pearl — a popular new item offered at stores such as Best Buy Mobile.

Technology sales also increase during the back-to-school season, and Calvin Smith said he is anticipating a big season at Best Buy. Smith, a sales manager at the West Ashley store, expects to sell items that normally appear on school lists like flash drives and Texas Instruments graphing calculators, and also a little more.

"Computers. It seems this year it's more about laptops than desktops, and mostly Mac Books," he said. "They tend to be the trend now."

Cell phones such as the Verizon Dare, Sony Instinct and the Blackberry Pearl are also sold in great numbers, Smith said.

Matt Cloaninger serves as an executive team leader at Target. He said the store receives a daily shipment of uniform clothing, a requirement of some Lowcountry schools. But other big sellers are Hannah Montana backpacks for kids between the ages of 8 and 12.

In her cart, young Liza Grace Scott helped pick out new clothes for school. She had a shopping list of her own: a unicorn, a puppy and a goldfish.

Lifting a polo shirt to eye-level, her mother Ashley Scott imagined it on son Logan, a 7-year-old playing an electronic game while waiting. Scott and her mother, Kim Philips, decided to start school shopping a little early.

Philips retrieved a pair of pink pants from a nearby stack.

"I think we'll get a five."

"Hey, that's how old I am!" Liza said.

Both children attend James Island Elementary. Liza turned to her grandmother with a reminder. "We're getting clothes now and a toy later," she said with a grin. "Remember?"

Scott said the increasing cost of food and gas drove her to look for better sales at places she usually skips. "That's why we're at Target and not Old Navy. We noticed some sales last weekend."

She said she's looking forward to tax-free weekend: "We'll do school supplies then."