The economy remains stuck on pause and consumers swear they're still too spooked to spend, yet the mall bustles with back-to-school shoppers on the first glorious afternoon post-hurricane.

Everyone carries bags, but few smile. We've had fleeting natural distractions, but no one except Michael Vick is making more money this fall than last. No wonder retail therapy feels so depressing.

And now the apparel industry has unveiled a season of untimely price hikes. Clothing costs more - on average, 10 percent - yet everything from cut to quality screams cheap and insubstantial to all but the least discriminating shoppers.

Exhibit A: an itty-bitty $36 ruffle skirt from tween dream retailer Justice. Greenfield School second grader Fina Reilly can't wait to wear it; her mother, Emer Smyth, is afraid to wash it.

"This is the kind of thing they want, but I know it will fall apart," Smyth sighs, taking no comfort in a coupon she used to score the skirt at a slightly less ridiculous price.

"Look at it," she says, recoiling. "It's practically a handkerchief."

Getting mauled at the mall

Now I'm panicking. My daughter is the same age as the adorably irrepressible Fina. To kill time during the storm, I had Jane try on last year's school clothes. Nothing that snaps, zips, or buttons fit her.

Smyth, who lives in Spring Garden but shops at the Cherry Hill Mall, holds up a pair of pants from 77kids, a pint-size offshoot of American Eagle. "Expensive," she admits, "but the quality is reasonable."

Hardly a ringing endorsement, but this is 2011. And 77kids is the kind of intentionally distressed money pit that sells pink "Skinny Jeans" for $34.50 - for toddlers.

A 77kids store clerk says not to focus on price tags. If I buy three of anything, they take 30 percent off.

I'd been warned by retail analysts to beware bogus deals requiring shoppers to spend more to save little. The Limited even wants me to work for an intangible prize: "Get 25 Virtual Dollars - ask how!"

Worse than the fake sales? Blatant bedazzlement to disguise charging more for less fabric. Behold the season of the sequin.

Witness the official description of a children's T-shirt by PS by Aeropostale: "Our Long Sleeve Lace-Trim Top is designed with a handkerchief hemline that's accented with pretty sequins. Raw-edge seams, banded cuffs and a small front pocket finish the look."

This T-shirt also retails for $34.50. It is constructed of 60 percent cotton and 40 percent "modal," a foreign fiber I had to look up on the Internet.

(Modal, apparently, resembles rayon, is made by "spinning reconstituted cellulose from beech trees," prone to piling and - gasp! - may require ironing.)

Not to be outshone, Justice is hawking shirts so thin, misshapen, and otherwise inconsequential they must be worn in pairs lest the young fashionista be sent home from school for indecent exposure.

"Layer me" urges a bright-red sticker affixed to a $29 "Crop Tie Dye Icon Top" (more modal!) thoughtfully hung over the $17 "Our Favorite Metallic Lace Cami."

Paying more at Payless

I wish I could say the pickings were more pleasing for discount shoppers. So does Mary McNeill.

I met the Camden mother and grandmother as she recovered from a painful shoe-shopping expedition for four girls.

"It ain't Payless today," McNeill complains. "Little girls' shoes were $30, $34, $22! I always go to Payless. This is the first time I've ever seen prices like that in there."

McNeill had no choice, with all those bare feet and school starting next week. But at a nearby Wal-Mart, I tested a theory that the most budget-conscious customers will still bolt from all but the best deals.

Standing by a scanner, a woman clutches deeply reduced baby clothes unemotionally. Anything $1, she tossed in her cart. Everything else, she rejected as unworthy.

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670,, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at