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Sears Trades Its ‘Softer Side’ for Fresher Image

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From Staff and Wire Reports

Sears, Roebuck & Co. plans to show consumers its harder side this fall in a much-anticipated advertising campaign intended to boost sales and change its stodgy image.

After months of watching customers flock to more affordable discount stores, the world’s second-largest retailer is ditching its “softer side of Sears” slogan in favor of a more value-focused tag: “The Good Life at a Great Price. Guaranteed. Sears.”

“Whether we like it or not, we’re in a price game war, a value shootout with all our competition,” said Mark A. Cohen, Sears’ executive vice president of marketing. “With the ‘softer side’ campaign, the customer feedback has been ‘We love the commercials, imagery and models, but we don’t find those goods at Sears.’ ”

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Cohen contended that Sears is “more competitive than customers give us credit for. . . . Shame on us, we’ve been avoiding shouting about price, shouting about our quality guarantees and the products we offer.”

To that end, the Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based retailer forced its two advertising agencies--Young & Rubicam Inc. and Ogilvy & Mather, both based in New York--into unprecedented cooperation to come up with the new tag line and develop 40 TV commercials set to debut in September that emphasize Sears as a place to shop.

Sears would not reveal the cost of the new campaign, which will also involve print and radio advertising. According to the trade publication Advertising Age, Sears spent $571.4 million in advertising in 1998, making it the sixth-most advertised brand. It spent $664.6 million in 1997.

The campaign is the final piece in a series of changes the retailer announced early this year, including offering more trendy brand-name clothing, reaching out to younger consumers with concert tours and teenage advisory panels, remodeling its stores and selling merchandise on the Internet. It clearly is aimed at reviving the fortunes of a company that appears to have lost its way recently.

At the half-year mark, Sears’ revenue was down 3.2%. Sales at domestic stores open at least a year were up just 1.2% through June, at a time when the retail sector overall has enjoyed gangbusters growth.

Sears’ shares closed Tuesday at $40.31 on the New York Stock Exchange, near the company’s 52-week low of $39.06 and well off their high of $54.94 set last August.

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Launched in September 1993 to attract fashion-conscious women to its stores, the “softer side” campaign initially spurred sales. The ads played off Sears’ image as a source of tools and auto parts; one TV spot talked about garden shears while showing a woman in hosiery.

The ads accompanied a revamping of Sears that included not only updated merchandise but the hiring of new buyers and a redesign of stores.

But critics now say that Sears Chairman Arthur Martinez’s rescue of the company from the brink of bankruptcy in 1992 only delayed the inevitable. Middle-priced stores such as Sears, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward are being squeezed from both ends, by higher-priced competitors such as Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and discount and specialty shops such as Wal-Mart, Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Plus, analysts said, the “softer side” campaign, fresh when it was introduced, got tired.

Cohen said the new campaign, which continues to target women, is intended to emphasize Sears’ entire product line, positioning the chain as a one-stop-shopping destination for so-called lifestyle goods.

One new TV ad, highlighting Sears’ Fieldmaster private-label brand, depicts a man in a flannel-style shirt, sleeves rolled up, as he rock-climbs. The ad notes that the “rugged shirt” is $22.50, then adds, “For the man who fears nothing . . . except shopping.” After one last view of the man, now looking puzzled, the scene cuts to the Fieldmaster logo and the new slogan.

The emphasis on Sears’ guarantee is not a change in store policy, but rather an attempt to communicate the promises Sears has always made to its customers, said David Selby, the company’s senior vice president of retail marketing. Those include lifetime replacement of Craftsman tools and a promise to exchange worn-out children’s clothing in the same size.

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One analyst said Sears has suffered in recent years as one of the last of a dying breed--the department store. Retailers that are now called department stores are really large apparel stores that sometimes have housewares, he said. The other retailers to move into the void are discounters, such as Wal-Mart, which beat Sears on price.

“There’s much more competition, and Sears, at its core, still has a cost structure that is quite a bit higher than their competition,” one Chicago analyst said. “What happened was that [companies] like Wal-Mart came along. . . . They were able to build a different model and grew up with a better cost structure from the get-go.”

But analyst Kurt Barnard, president of consulting firm Barnard’s Retail Trend Report, warned against counting Sears out just yet, calling the new campaign “extremely effective.” “All that Sears needs now to do is to make its stores live up to the expectations the tag line raises,” Barnard said.

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