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FROM THE ESCALATOR at the Walden Galleria, shoppers are drawn by a store's display window offering an array of clothing in brilliant colors -- fuchsia, mustard, purple and an assortment of Indian prints.

Ordinarily, this would not be unusual. (Paisley-printed harem pants under brightly colored T-shirts are the norm at most stores). But this is Sears!

Sears Roebuck & Co. stores, including its 10 stores in Erie and Niagara counties, are undergoing face-lifts and tummy tucks in order to make them more appealing to the female shopper. Even though women buy most of their clothing at malls and Sears is in many of them, a lot of women will buy anything in Sears except their own clothes, research shows.

So the Chicago-based mass-merchandiser has taken a cue from its close competitor, J.C. Penney Co., and started a program to take on the look and feel of a department or specialty store.

"Primarily, it's been an effort by both Sears and J.C. Penney to improve their image and get into name brands instead of private labels," said Craig Kraff, securities analyst at Edward D. Jones & Co. in St. Louis.

The changes were installed so the retail giants could capture their share of the women's apparel business, a bright spot in the otherwise sluggish retail market.

"The goal is to improve profits," but the only way to do that is to bring in new customers, he said.

Old habits, however, apparently are hard to break. Many women still shop at Sears for everything but their clothing.

"Sears used to be conservative; now they've loosened up," said Nancy Badach-Rondon, a Buffalo resident, buying children's shoes at Sears in the Eastern Hills Mall. "But it's still not my favorite place to shop. I'd go to Penney's first for dressy clothes."

"I rarely shop at Sears for myself," Gerianne Diaz-Ordaz of East Amherst, said as she hustled three of her four children through the children's swimwear department at Sears. "But Penney's, I like their casual clothes. They are a little more stylish. The store is more organized so that you can find what you're looking for."

Sears and J.C. Penney are leading what Kraff says could be a movement of retailers previously known as mass merchandisers toward the department store concept. This repositioning was led by J.C. Penney when it dropped its $1.5 billion appliance and electronics business to concentrate on apparel.

Stores were redesigned. Brand-name merchandise was introduced. Sears joined the movement about two years ago, concentrating on name brands and a department store/specialty shop look.

This is the wave of the future for both companies and other discounters, Kraff said. "Wal-Mart is about the only one of the discounters to succeed in that strategy," he added.

J.C. Penney officially kicked off its fashion program in 1983, although the company had been examining the strategy since the mid-1970s, said J. Duncan Muir, company spokesman.

"We were steadily losing market share in the women's line. Research showed family women would shop for children and her husband in J.C. Penney" but not for herself.

Research also shows that customers were not going to Penney's for lawn and garden supplies or other durables. "We decided that apparel would be our strength," he said.

J.C. Penney redesigned its stores and added new lighting, carpeting and wood floors. Its displays have special themes and concepts, while the store's use of mannequins is more pronounced, Muir said.

"It's also the fixtures, how the merchandise is presented," he added. "Previously, we had rows and racks of clothes. Now there are creative presentations to draw people in to shop."

The company moved from appliances to apparel in time to take advantage of the bonanza going on in woman's clothing.

J.C. Penney's sales have risen steadily since the company refocused its business, Kraff said. According to its latest annual report, retail sales rose 8.6 percent in 1989 to $16.1 billion. Earnings per share rose to $6.47 from $4.96 in 1988.

In 1988, Sears shifted to an "every day low price" strategy and began carrying more name-brand merchandise, but so far, the results have not been spectacular, Kraff said.

While revenues for 1989 rose 7.1 percent to $53.8 billion, the company is "dissatisfied with the level of return on equity," its latest annual report said. Sears' dividend has remained flat at $2 per share during the last three years, while J.C. Penney's rose from $1.48 in 1987 to $2.24 in 1989.

J.C. Penney got the jump on Sears, which began repositioning its juniors department, called Mainframe, in 1988. The stores were given new displays and new merchandise throughout, said Lee Hogan Cass, national fashion merchandise director.

Today, Mainframe is 99 percent name-brand merchandise. Throughout apparel departments, brands such as New Attitudes and Norton McNaughton can be spotted. Pretty soon, Dockers and Levi's slacks, will be coming on board, she said.

"A lot of customers shop Sears for appliances and things for their cars but not clothing. We plan to recapture those people," Ms. Cass said.

In addition to the colors, styles and brand names, Sears has redesigned its stores, changing traffic patterns and widening aisles.

"We have the same merchandise as a lot of other stores in the mall, such as Stuart, Lerner's and Gutman's," said Gwenn M. Kinnin, assistant manager of Sears in Eastern Hills. "We're getting it in earlier so it's not outdated. In the past, we brought it in two months after everyone else did."

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