By  on March 31, 2005

NEW YORK — Sears, Roebuck will start selling the Parallel contemporary brand beginning mid-April in an exclusive distribution deal that reflects the chain’s ongoing reengineering of its apparel business.

In disclosing the Parallel pact to WWD on Wednesday, Sears executives said the recasting of its apparel floor is gathering steam. This fall, they plan to introduce a few more exclusive labels, which they declined to identify. The essence of the strategy is to build up a stable of “affordable and on-trend” labels unique to midtier retailing.

Other key components of the strategy involve reworking the selling floors so they’re less dense with merchandise and become clearly divided into three lifestyle areas: updated, classics and relaxed. Also, since last holiday season, Sears has accelerated the flow of goods to its stores, so that floor sets change every six to eight weeks, compared with three to four per year. “We’re heavily into the cycle now,” said Gwen Manto, executive vice president and general manager of apparel, Sears, Roebuck.

About half of Sears’ apparel business is considered exclusive to the store, and apparel/accessories represents 25 to 30 percent of the volume at Sears’ 870 full-line stores around the country. For years, Sears’ apparel business has underperformed the hard goods side and has been under assault by the stronger J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Target and traditional department stores, among other retailers.

“Our strategy is to really go to market with a much more relevant fashion offering — and do fewer things but with more authority,” said Manto. “We want great exclusive product not sold at other midtier retailers.”

“Sears is a natural fit as our new exclusive retail partner for Parallel because together we are able to make fashion more accessible,” said Max Azria, chairman and chief executive of BCBG Max Azria Group, parent company of Parallel, which is geared to appeal to women ages 18 to 35. 

Key Parallel items and prices for spring include cardi sweater wraps and pleated print skirts for $44; matte jersey wrap dresses for $58; floral print tunics at $38; rib knit tanks with lace trims, $22; linen flare leg pants, $50, and ruffle trim twill jackets, priced at $72.Manto added there will be new brands for fall in the updated and relaxed apparel sections, but none in classics. Key updated labels include the A-line proprietary brand and the private label Apostrophe, as well as Parallel. Key classic brands include the Lands’ End and Covington private labels and the proprietary First Issue. Classics Elements is a key private label in the relaxed section.

This month, Sears merged with Kmart, forming Sears Holdings. It’s expected that many Kmarts will convert to Sears stores. Asked if some Sears brands could be sold at Kmart, Manto said, “We really haven’t determined how to combine the Kmart and Sears businesses. Right now, we are merchandising separately,” though she suggested that some of the strongest brands. Kmart’s Martha Stewart Everyday home collection is a likely candidate.

Retail observers will be watching closely how Parallel performs at Sears, considering it was not a success at J.C. Penney, which dropped the line last spring. According to a retail source, it didn’t sell well; speed to market was an issue, and Parallel wanted to utilize special sales associates to help sell the line, which is more of a traditional department store selling model. Also, Parallel’s prices were higher than Penney’s in general.

Asked why she believes Sears can do a better job with Parallel than Penney’s, Manto replied: “BCBG never has been as hot as it is today. Max Azria and his team have been unbelievable.” She called Sears’ Parallel products “trend-right” and noted that even before the goods arrive at the stores, brand extensions are in the works, including handbags and a fragrance for fall.

With each of its proprietary brands, Sears strives to offer head-to-toe looks, said Manto, who reports to Luis Padilla, president of merchandising and marketing for Sears Holdings. Another key member of the team is Patti Simigran, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s apparel, Sears, Roebuck.

Parallel is being distributed to Sears’ top 150 stores for spring and 425 stores for fall, and will be sold on

Manto would not divulge financial details of the Parallel deal.BCBG Max Azria Group includes BCBG Max Azria Collection, BCBGirls, BCBG Attitude, To The Max, Hervé Léger and Max Azria Atelier.

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