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Store Wars and School Days

“Hit the books in great looks.” “Schooled in style.” “Retool for school.”

Those hip quips and many more from this week’s sales circulars really mean one thing: “Please buy our stuff!” The nation’s merchants, hobbled by the new cautious consumerism, are making a desperate last stand before Labor Day.

It’s hard to blame them. Back-to-school is our second busiest shopping season next to Christmas – meaning it’s retailers second-last chance to pull 2009 out of the red. Chain store sales were off 5 percent in July, reports the International Council of Shopping Centers, on track with similar drops earlier in the year.

Take a look at this recent tipsheet for links to major sources of retailing data – organizations you should bookmark and get to know.

Tomorrow and Thursday, key retailers report second-quarter earnings, including Macy’s, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart. If any of those companies have a major presence in your market, you’ll want to pull the press release and keep it handy. One thing to note: Wal-Mart, as both the largest U.S. retailer and the dominant discounter, is considered by many analysts to be a major bellwether of consumer spending – representing as much as 15 percent of U.S. retail sales.

With that sort of clout, the quarterly results coming out of Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Ark. headquarters can and do move the stock market. In fact, last May Wal-Mart – also the world’s largest private employer, by the way — stopped reporting its monthly store sales, in an effort to calm volatility.

Obviously, no retailer’s second-quarter results will reflect back-to-school sales – at least until that probably-not-distant day when stores start those campaigns before the previous term is even out, the way Christmas merchandise now crowds beach balls and sand pails. But the Commerce Dept. on Thursday will release its take on July retail sales; check it out at 8:30 a.m. sharp. Here’s a link to the June release so you can scope the format; it’s interesting because it breaks down the results by category such as clothing, electronics, health and personal care (drug stores) and so on.

Meanwhile do peruse the sales fliers to hone your next back-to-school story idea. A consumer story about freebies and bargains would be a good draw; Kmart is offering free pencils while Office Depot counters with free Crayolas. Other special offers are out there; I see Michael’s has jumped on the teacher-appreciation bandwagon launched by Staples and is offering an extra discount for classroom supplies.

Even hardware stores and other unlikely chains are getting into the act with specials on storage tubs, vitamins – no stretch is too great to capture the school-kids dollar. Many states just held their sales-tax-free weekend; others are yet to come. Check out this list and do a port-mortem or a preview.

Home in on one specific angle – cost of sports supplies, the contentious “school supply lists” that elementary teachers issue and other back-to-school issues that affect a specific slice of your readership. A few years ago one of my Detroit News colleagues wrote about “the cost of a high school senior,” – from photos to prom to college application fees, the senior sticker shock made for an excellent read.

In Beats.

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