Share this article

print logo

Sears aims to update image; Rolls out new lines, revamps store designs

It took a trio of famous sisters -- Kim, Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian -- and their namesake jeans to draw Sajde Kerimi back into Sears.

The 29-year-old mother of two usually heads to Nordstrom Rack and H&M to shop, but on a recent weekend, Kerimi was in Sears at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill., mulling several pairs of $68 Kardashian jeans.

"Normally I wouldn't shop at Sears at all," said Kerimi, who was passing through on her way into the mall. A $38.99 black jumpsuit looked particularly promising.

"I actually would come back and shop without kids and husband, and spend money," Kerimi said.

Sears is hoping customers will have a similar reaction as it works to turn a retail relic into a destination. At its annual meeting this month, new merchandising chief Ron Boire said Sears is experimenting with new store designs in an effort to better connect with customers -- part of its plans to get back to basics.

But analysts are skeptical of those vows, noting that revamping Sears' aging retail stores has never been high on the company's to-do list. Since taking control of Sears in 2005, chairman and majority shareholder Edward Lampert instead has sought to wring out value for shareholders by selling off chunks of its real estate portfolio, bolstering its online presence and striking licensing deals for its Craftsman tools and Diehard batteries brands.

Meanwhile, trendy discounters such as Target and value operators like Walmart methodically have wooed away shoppers.

In a recent interview, Boire said Sears is experimenting with a sleek, sophisticated look at a handful of stores, including at Woodfield Mall.

Hot sellers like treadmills and the Kardashian Kollection, which used to be lost among the merchandise, have dedicated areas; the Kardashian clothes, for example, are placed at the entrance from the mall. Sales associates also are front and center, mingling with shoppers and offering to show them additional selections on iPads.

Mannequins are displayed with skateboards and bicycles -- merchandise that can be found in other parts of the store. Likewise, items such as bras and panties that have always been shown separately are displayed together as coordinated outfits, much as a reader would see in a women's magazine.

Cashier stations are smaller and nestled into the prime real estate. The redesign is more akin to a modern boutique, sparser in what is displayed so that the customer isn't overwhelmed.

"You'll hear customers say they don't think we have the merchandise," said Deidra Merriwether, Sears' chief operating officer for retail formats. "We have the merchandise, [and] we are trying to make it easier for them to see it."

Boire and his team have a steep climb ahead: Sears' sales have fallen for six straight years, although sales declines in stores open for at least a year, which is a key retail indicator, narrowed in the quarter that ended April 28, falling 1.0 percent, compared with 5.2 percent in the same period in 2011.

While apparel and footwear sales also improved in the most recent quarter, consumers aren't buying Sears home appliances -- in part due to the economy -- like they used to. Accounting for 60 percent of overall sales, appliance sales have been sliding. As part of the makeover, Boire's team made only a few tweaks to the appliance area by adding a cooking wall and making the merchandise more visible.

Formerly president and CEO of Brookstone, Boire joined Sears in January. Boire said then that he planned to make "appropriate, smart investments in things that are going to make a difference in the store."

One big challenge, he said during a walk-through of the Woodfield store, is finding new ways to woo younger customers such as Kerimi.

To do that, Sears has to tell its story more effectively, Boire said. "This is Sears. We really do have the best brands, great quality, affordable and great service. That's what people have always thought about us."

Despite Boire's efforts, some industry watchers said the company may have a hard time convincing critics that Lampert isn't merely gussying up the retailer to eventually wind it down.

"It's indicative of a lack of focus," added Steven Keith Platt, director and research fellow at Hinsdale, Ill.-based Platt Retail Institute, an industry consultancy. "Stores that have not been refreshed or updated are a disaster for a retailer. Mix that with a lack of focus, and it's no surprise they are in a tailspin."

Sears also needs a marketing strategy to go with the store makeovers, say industry watchers.