CHICAGO — It took a trio of famous sisters — Kim, Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian — and their namesake jeans to draw Sajde Kerimi back into Sears.
The 29-year-old mother of two usually heads to Nordstrom Rack and H&M to shop, but on a recent weekend Kerimi was in Sears at Woodfield Mall, mulling several pairs of $68 Kardashian jeans.
“Normally I wouldn’t shop at Sears at all,” said Kerimi, who was passing through on her way into the mall. A $38.99 black jumpsuit looked particularly promising.
“I actually would come back and shop without kids and husband and spend money,” Kerimi said.
Sears Holdings Corp. is hoping other customers will have a similar reaction as it works to turn a retail relic into a destination. At its annual meeting this month, new merchandising chief Ron Boire said the Sears chain is experimenting with new store designs in an effort to better connect with customers — part of its plans to get back to basics.
But analysts are skeptical of those vows, noting that revamping Sears’ aging retail stores has never been high on the company’s to-do list. Since taking control of Sears in 2005, chairman and majority shareholder Edward Lampert instead has sought to wring out value for shareholders by selling off chunks of its real estate portfolio, bolstering its online presence and striking licensing deals for its Craftsman tools and Diehard batteries brands.
Meanwhile, trendy discounters such asTarget Corp.and value operators such asWal-Mart Stores Inc.methodically have wooed away shoppers.
Boire said Sears is experimenting with a sleek, sophisticated look at a handful of stores, including the one Kerimi visited near Sears’ headquarters in suburban Chicago, as well as ones in the New York, Los Angeles and Dallas areas.
Hot sellers like treadmills and the Kardashian Kollection, which used to be lost among the merchandise, have dedicated areas (the Kardashian clothes, for example, are placed at the entrance from the mall). Sales associates also are front and center, mingling with shoppers and offering to show them additional selections on iPads.
Mannequins are displayed with skateboards and bicycles — merchandise that can be found in other parts of the store. Likewise, items such as bras and panties that have always been shown separately are displayed together as coordinated outfits, much like a reader would see in a women’s magazine.
Cashier stations are smaller and nestled into the prime real estate. The redesign is more akin to a modern boutique, sparser in what is displayed so that the customer isn’t overwhelmed.
“You’ll hear customers say they don’t think we have the merchandise,” said Deidra Merriwether, Sears’ chief operating officer, retail formats. “We have the merchandise, [and] we are trying to make it easier for them to see it.”
Boire and his team have a steep climb ahead: Sears’ sales have fallen for six straight years, although sales declines in stores open for at least a year, which is a key retail indicator, narrowed in the quarter that ended April 28, falling 1%, compared with 5.2% in the same period in 2011.
While apparel and footwear sales also improved in the most recent quarter, consumers aren’t buying Sears home appliances — in part because of the economy — like they used to. Accounting for 60% of overall sales, appliance sales have been sliding. As part of the makeover, Boire’s team made only a few tweaks to the appliance area by adding a cooking wall and making the merchandise more visible.
Formerly president and chief executive of Brookstone Inc., Boire joined Sears in January. Boire said then that he planned to make “appropriate, smart investments in things that are going to make a difference in the store.”
One big challenge, he said during a walk-through of the Woodfield, Ill. store, is finding new ways to woo younger customers like Kerimi.
To do that, Sears has to tell its story more effectively, Boire said. “This is Sears. We really do have the best brands, great quality, affordable and great service. That’s what people have always thought about us.”
He’s betting that the changes will help customers shop without having to think too much or dig too deep to find merchandise.
“You come in, you want to see something different and you discover, ‘This is fascinating, I’m going to pick up some of these,’” Boire said. That might mean a customer who comes to Sears for a new T-shirt will also leave with a pair of jeans, shoes and maybe a drill.
“I like to say we’re descendants of people who picked the shiny rocks in the river. We like to touch things and engage and interact with the physicality around us. We’re hunter-gatherers,” Boire said.
Boire declined to say how much the company has spent on the Woodfield store rehab. Nor would he say when or if the changes will be rolled out across Sears’ 810 mall stores.
“We measure everything,” he said. “The results in the store have been very positive.”
Despite Boire’s efforts, some industry watchers said the company may have a hard time convincing critics that Lampert isn’t merely gussying up the retailer to eventually wind it down.
“It’s indicative of a lack of focus,” said Steven Keith Platt, director and research fellow at Platt Retail Institute, an industry consultancy. “Stores that have not been refreshed or updated are a disaster for a retailer. Mix that with a lack of focus and it’s no surprise they are in a tailspin.”
Sears also needs a marketing strategy to go with the store makeovers, say industry watchers.
Boire said the retailer is focused on driving its message through a more personalized Web, mobile and social media presence, including the retailer’s Shop Your Way customer loyalty program and its local ad initiative.
New customers will be reeled in via the plannedFather’s Daytelevision ads geared toward a “broader audience that will make Sears a destination for all things dad,” he said.
But the broader challenge is getting customers in the door and keeping them. Kerimi, who works across the street, said she hasn’t had time to go back to Sears to buy the Kardashian jumpsuit she was considering.
“I do plan on going back to Sears to check out the clothes on sale,” she said.