The Price of Competition : Sears is madly changing tags, signs--and its attitude--to reopen at noon.

Times Staff Writer

The busiest store Tuesday morning at Westminster Mall was closed for the day.

Within the glass doors and metal gates that kept customers out of Sears, almost 300 employees fought an unbending deadline to implement a new low-price policy that the world’s biggest merchant hopes will lift it from the humbling doldrums of the recent past.

Seven weeks of planning and several days of furious effort are to culminate at noon today when Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith and Winnie the Pooh cut a ribbon to ceremonially reopen the 225,000-square-foot store.

But first, the Westminster staff had to take inventory on tens of thousands of socks, lawn mowers, television sets and earrings. Like workers at 34 other Sears stores in Southern California, they also had tens of thousands of little gummed price tags to affix and 50,000 new signs and banners to post. As at 824 Sears stores nationwide, there were also hundreds of displays to hang, stack and array.


“The more we touch, the more obvious it is the more we have to do,” Allen Sharpless, the 29-year Sears veteran who manages the Westminster store, said at mid-morning Tuesday.

Sharpless and other store managers first got word Jan. 10 of Sears’ plans to inaugurate “every single day pricing"--the giant retailer’s motto for a policy of fewer sales and lower regular prices designed to fend off competition from aggressive discounters.

Department managers got the word a few days later, and soon detailed “planograms” began flooding in from Sears’ national and regional offices with specific instructions for the store’s new overall look and new ways to present merchandise in nearly every department.

Last week, Sharpless and his assistants held group meetings with all 375 sales associates, showing a Sears-produced videotape on the new pricing policy, answering questions and underscoring employees’ responsibility to make Sears a store where customers could once again count on getting service, not just an occasionally attractive sales price.


The real work, though, began Saturday.

First came an inventory of the store’s warehouse and stockrooms. After the store closed Sunday evening, workers counted and recounted every item in the clothing departments. Meanwhile, new prices on 50,000 items were downloaded into the store’s computers and cash registers. Inventory in the hard goods departments--appliances, furniture, hardware and the like--was completed Monday night, after an early 6 p.m. closing.

New Signs

Family and friends pitched in; even the Los Alamitos High School basketball team, one of whose members is the son of a store employee, dropped by to help with the inventory.

By late Monday and early Tuesday, the new prices, displays and signs--red, white and blue downstairs in the hard goods, a softer white, gray and fuchsia upstairs in clothing--were beginning to appear.

“YOUR MONEY’S WORTH AND A WHOLE LOT MORE . . . GUARANTEED,” one banner promises. “GREAT NAMES! GREAT PRICES! EVERY SINGLE DAY!” another shouts. Yet others emphasize Sears’ new focus on brand-name merchandise, calling attention in the men’s department, for instance, to the Lee, Levi, Bugle Boy, Cotler and Tomato fashions now available at a store known historically for its house brands.

“We’ve got to make sure everything we’ve done in the past goes down and all the new art, the new colors, go up,” Sharpless reminded his department heads at a meeting early Tuesday morning. “We’ve got plenty of time,” he said, drawing muffled laughter. “We’ve got a day and a half.”

On the sales floors, employees in shorts, sweats and blue jeans were bustling through the store.


Some bent over computer printouts, matching prices to products. Some used long poles to hook still more banners to the ceilings. Others piled everything from garments to garage door openers on new “tonnage tables” designed to give rummaging customers a better sense of the depth of Sears’ inventory. Sharpless--the only one wearing a tie--shoved pallets out of aisles and pushed a new display table along a walkway.

The excitement of all the change seemed to strip away some of the tedium.

“It hasn’t been a drag as much as I thought it would be,” said 18-year-old Teri Gust, who was repricing socks in the men’s department.

In fact, the sales help may find it more fun to work for the new Sears than the old. Time that in the past was spent preparing for sales and promotions is now supposed to be devoted to customer service--a tradition some critics say Sears has lost sight of over the decades.

“Instead of just saying, ‘The one on sale is over there,’ we get back to contacting the customer and explaining what the features are,” said Ray Anderson, manager of the Westminster store’s hardware department. “It takes them out of just being a cashier to being a salesperson again.”

The new emphasis has required retraining of workers, especially in the store’s hard goods departments, where sales people will talk more about the features of Kenmore washing machines and Craftsman tools. “We’ve been going over the different line structures, been going over the terminology again,” Anderson explained. “Like ‘double insulation'--what does that mean to the customer?”

Still, amid the hoopla and new decor, when Mayor Smith and Winnie the Pooh open the doors today, can Sears customers, absent sales, really expect to find lower prices every day?

“You’ll actually leave with what you want,” said Anderson, as he went off to set up another display, “instead of what we want to sell you.”



In the past, items would frequently go on sale. New pricing means sales will be less frequent, but regular prices on most items will be significantly lower, sometimes by 50% or more.

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