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Local Shoppers Split Over Sears’ Effort at Low-Price Consistency

Times Staff Writers

About 300 customers had clustered at the entrances to South Coast Plaza’s Sears store Wednesday afternoon, awaiting that magic moment when doors would burst open and prices would fall.

Once inside the store, serious shoppers found Sears new everyday low-price strategy to be a mixed bag.

Carol Schwarzenbach of Tustin, for one, said the reductions unveiled Wednesday fell far short of making her pulse race. As Schwarzenbach sorted through the racks, she lamented that the more fashionable offerings in the girl’s department were only a dollar less than the department store’s old prices.

Dan Keller, on the other hand, said the new prices were great.

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“I’ve done really well,” said the Fountain Valley man, who had already loaded up on “personal items” from the men’s department.

Schwarzenbach and Keller were among shoppers across the United States who flocked to Sears, the nation’s largest retailer, after the chain reduced prices on more than 50,000 items in its 824 stores. The stores were closed from 6 p.m. Monday to noon Wednesday to give employees a chance to change price tags and signs and prepare for the introduction of the “everyday low prices” approach.

The move came in response to competition from discounters as well as complaints from consumers that frequent price changes have made it difficult for shoppers to recognize a fair deal. As part of the new strategy, Sears says it will offer fewer special sales and instead will provide dependable prices.

While most Southern California shoppers interviewed Wednesday said Sears’ new discount prices were generally lower than before, many weren’t convinced that they were the best deals in town.

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“Prices don’t look that low to me,” said Phil Bernard, a computer programmer from Topanga, as he looked over some blue jeans. “These are $19.95. I’ve seen them for $14 or $15 at other places.”

The prices on blue jeans seemed more reasonable to James J. Pittman, a bartender from Beverly Hills who grabbed two pairs. And Teresa Lee, after spotting a video camera at the Sears Santa Monica store whose price, she said, was more than $100 less than what she paid at another store, was even more impressed.

“I was skeptical about these discount prices,” said Lee, a 22-year-old legal secretary. “I usually wait for a sale. But I’m amazed at the low prices today. And it’s good knowing I can come back again some other day and get the item for the same price.”

Jim Harbeson, 42, of Corona del Mar, said the prices were lower on a lot of the tools he had seen but not on the router he needed. Though he wasn’t able to take advantage of the new low prices, “it seems to be an improvement,” he said.

The new emphasis on discount pricing was accomplished at Sears stores without the “warehouse look” some retailers favor. Although Sears employees were dressed in festive hats and aprons, the stores were little changed.

Sears officials generally said late Wednesday afternoon that it was too early to tell whether the new strategy was getting off to a successful start.

But Jim Berry, manager of the Sears store at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, said he was pleased.

“I would say that the response, at least in terms of shoppers in the store, was overwhelming. When we opened, we had crowds of people at all the entrances. I don’t think anybody went away disappointed.”

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