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    The normally booming back-to-school shopping season this year transformed into a nightmare for most American retailers.

    Consumers interviewed by America's Research Group reported a dramatic shift in their shopping habits for the coming school year. Of the 26 retail categories studied in ARG's Consumer Mind Reader ™ survey, only three saw increased store traffic over last year’s levels. Only four categories experienced larger average sales than a year ago.

    Discount apparel retailers, home accessories stores, and outlet malls/factory stores saw both increases in both sales and store traffic. Home accessories stores experienced increased sales volume but not store traffic.

    Taking the biggest hits in sales were retailers of hardware, appliances, electronics, computers, auto parts, musical instruments and jewelry. Consumers also reported far fewer purchases from catalogs and over the Internet.

    Jewelry stores suffered most in the bleak economy, with significant declines in both traffic and sales. Clearly belt-tightening consumers are sacrificing luxury purchases first as they struggle to pay their bills.

    The back-to-school season is usually one of the best retail events of the year, a make or break time for most stores heading into the Christmas shopping season.

    A dismal retail summer and disastrous back-to-school results will force many stores to offer better discounts. Otherwise their shelves will be full of left over merchandise from the spring and summer. With Hurricane Ike forcing gas prices up, consumers are in no mood to spend more on products. When coupled with economic hardship, unpredictable gas prices and an uncertain future, the consumer is changing shopping patterns just to survive.

    I have talked with millions of consumers over three decades about their retail shopping habits, and I have never seen this much of a change in buying patterns from the American public.

    Clearly consumers are still changing and as they try to cope with higher prices everywhere they turn. Our retail landscape could look much different a year from now. The retailers who survive will be the ones who understand and cater to their customers to meet their needs.

    My new book, The Customer Rules, profiles America's most successful companies and how their attitude toward customer service leads to success in tough economic times as well as during prosperous times.

    Heeding the bottom line at the expense of customers is a recipe for failure.

    Britt Beemer, founder and chairman of America's Research Group, is the country's leading authority on retail buying habits of consumers. ARG tracks consumer buying habits more than any other survey research firm in the nation. The company conducts customized surveys for retail and manufacturing clients across the United States, designed to provide clients valuable marketing recommendations to grow their businesses. Beemer is author of two best-selling business books, Predatory Marketing and It Takes a Prophet to Make a Profit. His third business book, entitled The Customer Rules, has just been released. More detailed information is available on the America’s Research Group website at http://www.americasresearchgroup.com.