In downtown Santa Rosa, roughly half the customers at the women’s fashion shop S.H.E. formerly lived in the city’s upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood.
The proprietors of the Fourth Street boutique have heard story after story from clients who fled for their lives from a historic firestorm, leaving behind homes and possessions to burn in Fountaingrove and nearby areas of Sonoma County.
“We’ve been crying and crying and crying,” said Deborah Cali, who owns the store with Nancy Blasingame.
Sales at the 12-year-old store remained flat in October compared to a year earlier and have declined nearly 4 percent to date in November, the owners said. But many other local retailers are experiencing far worse.
“They need clothes,” Blasingame said in explaining why customers with burned homes returned to the store. Even so, patrons generally have been cautious in their purchases, she said, and often are likely to restock their wardrobes with basic attire purchased at discount stores.
As the holiday season kicks off this week, business and civic leaders are trying to understand how the county’s retail landscape has changed after the most devastating wildfires in U.S. history. Many are joining with Sonoma County merchants in urging residents to shop local, especially this holiday season, as a means of saving jobs and helping retailers bounce back.
“This is such a critical time for so many small businesses,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
The fires that broke out Oct. 8 killed 23 people and destroyed 5,100 homes in the county. In Santa Rosa alone, the blazes damaged or destroyed 29 businesses, including a Kmart discount store, a Trader Joe’s supermarket, three hotels and several restaurants.
A Kohl’s department store still stands on Airway Drive, but will stay closed until early spring as the company assesses fire-related damage, a spokeswoman said last week. No further details were given on the damage to the northwest area store, which sits across a parking lot from three wrecked eateries belonging to Arby’s, McDonald’s and Applebee’s.
Natural disasters often bring immediate losses to retailers, but the impact also can throw off the normal shopping patterns in the following holiday season, said Britt Beemer, CEO of America’s Research Group of Summerville, South Carolina. Beemer gave a general rule for all sorts of disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes and floods: “Of the volume that you lose, you never recapture more than 15 percent.” Thus, if sales drop by $200,000 during the disaster, a store will earn back only about $30,000 of that lost business.
When the next Black Friday comes along, buying trends in the affected areas can further change in two ways. First, those directly harmed often pull back from holiday shopping.
“If your home is not livable, there will never be another Christmas like this, because you basically cut your buying down to bare essentials,” Beemer said.
Second, those less affected also may change their holiday spending in order to help the suffering. He recalled a Florida community where retail spending declined more than 15 percent during the holiday season after a hurricane hit near Orlando. Many consumers chose to provide gift cards or other donations to those who were hurting, rather than purchase items on their own wish lists.