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Back-to-school brings local shoppers back to stores


As students around Sonoma County make their way into schools this month with new zebra-striped backpacks or lunch boxes decked out with their favorite cartoon characters, retailers are reporting lukewarm sales for the back-to-school shopping season.

Sales at chain stores were lackluster from mid-July to mid-August, with sales slipping and then picking back up again from one week to the next, according to data compiled by the International Council on Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs.

The tallies at cash registers as parents and pupils gear up for the year are generally seen as a reflection of the state of the economy and a sign of what's to come in the upcoming holiday shopping season.

"Muscle shirts" and shorts were on the list of targets for Petaluma grandmother Gail Sabella and her two grandsons as they shopped in Sears in Santa Rosa.

"We just came for a few things, and we're leaving with a lot," Sabella said. "We've found some good deals."

The pace of shopping during the back-to-school season has been about the same as last year, said Jessica Mitchell, general manager for the Sears at Santa Rosa Plaza.

Meanwhile, retail giant Macy's reported weaker than expected revenues for its quarter ending Aug. 3, prompting CEO Terry Lundgren to call the results "disappointing."

Nationwide, shoppers expect to spend about $635 this year on back-to-school items, down 8 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

For some local shoppers, a recovering economy has given them more confidence to spend money this year. Hiwot Woldemariam of Santa Rosa planned to spend about $400 on her son's and daughter's jeans, T-shirts and other school supplies.

"I think we're spending a little more than last year," Woldemariam said after shelling out for clothes at Old Navy. "It's more comfortable. We feel a little more relaxed."

Woldemariam's husband was laid off during the recession, but the family is in a better financial situation now, she said.

Insurance broker Raquel Devoulin of Santa Rosa wasn't sure exactly how much she would spend as she shopped at Target with her 11-year-old daughter.

"I don't necessarily put a number on it," Devoulin said. "We just go with what's on the list and we try to buy what's on sale."

While personal finances may be improving for many, circumstances are getting tougher for people who rely on public assistance to obtain school supplies for their children, said Gloria Liner, executive director of Mendocino Coast Children's Fund.

The group, which supplies backpacks, shoes, clothing, socks, toiletries and a host of other important supplies, helped 100 children five years ago. Today, that number has doubled to 200 children, she said.

Liner shopped in Santa Rosa on Thursday to restock the supplies as requests poured in. Her 12-year-old granddaughter, Jessica Hauk, a student at Sonoma Country Day School, helped select items like backpacks, combs and brushes.

"Despite the fact that the economy is picking up for some people, for many people it's harder than ever, because the sequester at the federal level is cutting programs at the state and city level," Liner said. "We want (students) to feel like they're a part of the school, not on the outside looking in because they can't afford school supplies."

In addition to battling fickle consumer spending habits, brick-and-mortar retailers have been facing increasing competition from online shopping sites. Many are coming up with ways to incorporate e-commerce into their physical stores.

At Sears, shoppers can utilize kiosks throughout the store to order particular sizes or items that are out of stock, Mitchell said.

"We get a lot of online shopping in the store," Mitchell said. "We try to be very proactive about getting additional products ... and they can get it pretty fast."

When Kmart shoppers order products online for in-store pickup, the store's employees must have the product ready within two hours, said Ron Horne, manager at the Kmart in Petaluma. If a customer shopping at the store can't find the desired item or size, they can place an order online at the store which will be shipped free of charge.

Kmart's promotional video about its in-store free shipping program, dubbed "Ship My Pants," went viral and logged more than 19 million views on YouTube. Capitalizing on the moment, the company began selling T-shirts and sweatpants with emblazoned with the tag, "I Just Shipped My Pants."

"Some genius back in marketing must have come up with that one," Horne said. "I couldn't believe how fast our first batches of 'Ship My Pants' pants blew out of here."