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Sears to close multicultural marketing unit; exec retires
The head of Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s multicultural marketing group is leaving the Hoffman Estates retailer as part of a cost-cutting program sweeping the company.
Billye Alexander, a 34-year Sears veteran who was named vice president for multicultural management seven months ago, is retiring from the ailing department store chain. Her group will be disbanded.
Five others in the department will be reassigned to individual business units to handle multicultural marketing. Putting those marketers closer to the customer "will allow for quicker decision making and implementation," Janine Bousquette, Sears' chief customer and marketing officer, explained in an e-mail to workers Thursday.
Sears does need to act fast. The nation's largest department store chain is on pace for its fourth straight year of falling sales, as rivals ranging from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to Home Depot Inc. steal its market share in everything from apparel to appliances.
The disbanding of what had been the stand-alone multicultural marketing group typifies the upheaval at Sears, which has been looking for ways to cut costs and become more nimble. Sears launched the corporate shake-up, which was code-named "Project Sharp," in December to streamline its operations.
Many companies have had multicultural marketing departments only to disband them, figuring that each business line should be marketed to every customer.
But such companies risk shooting themselves in the foot by dispersing a tightly knit group into separate business units, said Richard Aguilar, a Hispanic marketing consultant in Minneapolis.
"Can you imagine integrating Spanish marketing in every department and thinking they all understand what it is?" he said. "Hispanics are not seen as minorities by some. They think they've been assimilated, but you do have to market to them in a different way."
Indeed, Sears has much riding on multicultural marketing. Hispanics, Asians and blacks now account for more than 25 percent of the company's sales and are likely to grow as a share because of the nation's changing demographics.
Sears said the dissolution of Alexander's department, whose duties in the future will be handled out of individual business units, does not diminish the firm's commitment and investment in multicultural markets.
"What we're doing now is embedding the team members into the businesses," Sears spokesman Chris Brathwaite said. "We're taking multicultural marketing to the next level by making it part of the fabric of the overall organization."
Among the group's achievements was the integration of the Lucy Pereda collection, an apparel line backed by the popular television star dubbed the Hispanic Martha Stewart.
Sears has not disclosed how many of its 4,600 headquarters workers it has laid off under Project Sharp. But the nation's biggest department store chain is scheduled to release its second-quarter financial results Thursday, and Sears may address cost cutting in a conference call with Wall Street analysts.
It is expected the cuts might amount to a couple hundred positions at Sears' headquarters, in addition to the 260 information technology jobs farmed out in March.
Now that new departmental structures are in place and many workers have new duties, Sears is essentially asking headquarters employees to move on.
"I am happy to report that we are retiring Project Sharp from the Sears vocabulary," Chief Executive Alan Lacy said in a Tuesday memo to workers.
The change will make Sears stronger, he said, but he acknowledged that there had been a significant degree of anxiety in the process.
The restructuring has "resulted in some very good members of the team leaving the company, and this is painful," said Lacy, who became CEO in late 2000. "I would not have taken us down such a difficult road unless I thought it was absolutely necessary."
Alexander, who could not be reached for comment, joined Sears in 1970 and became division manager of a store in Stockton, Calif., in 1971. Before being named to her current post, she was Midwest regional vice president.
There are other changes, as well. Sears said Bousquette will no longer report directly to Lacy after the company hires a president for its retail operations. Sears announced the new post Monday, coinciding with the departure of Mark Cosby, head of its full-line stores.