By  on April 18, 2005

NEW YORK — As Kmart unveiled its new retail concept in four more locations this past weekend, it’s clear from the design of these latest test stores that the mass merchant is moving in an upmarket direction.

The stores are in Bohemia, N.Y.;  Norridge, Ill.; Rio Grande, N.J., and Silver Spring, Md.

Kmart acknowledges its debt to department stores, although it has a long way to go before its stores look like Macy’s. But for the retailer, which merged last month with Sears, Roebuck and Co., the improvements are a big step.

“We’re hearing from customers that it feels more like a department store,” said a Kmart spokesman, noting that there’s a major emphasis on fashion with wider, more open apparel departments located front and center.

“From the minute you come in you see apparel,” he said. “It’s more across the whole store.”

Mannequins are being used for the first time to feature complete looks and products are displayed on three-tiered wooden tables. Partial-height accent walls are painted bright orange and used to highlight clothes. Lifestyle graphics decorate the walls. Even the dressing rooms have been redesigned, the spokesman said.

Throughout the stores, the key colors are orange, yellow and green.

“Mannequins give us a great opportunity to rotate looks and outfits,” the spokesman added. “We’re hoping to sell more outfits. This helps put it together for the customer.”

Some stores have a separate plus-size area bounded by a wide aisle that can accommodate two shopping carts.

“It’s a redistribution of departments,” the spokesman said. “We’ve opened up the store. It’s much broader in view with vistas and something to catch the eye at each vista. We’ve not only brought up the level of the presentation, we’ve updated some of our own brands.”

Kmart revamped its Jaclyn Smith brand in December to include Attention, a business casual collection with an emphasis on linen jackets and skirts. In terms of new apparel brands, the spokesman said, “We’ll keep looking at our mix.”Kmart isn’t the only mass merchant moving in this direction. Wal-Mart two weeks ago said it would begin upgrading all of its offerings, including apparel, in a sign that the behemoth from Bentonville, Ark., was beginning to respond to the buzz Target generates.

“Kmart is offering design and style at bargain prices,” said Richard Hastings, a retail analyst and founder of The RDH Company in Charlotte, N.C. “They’re trying to be more like Target. You won’t see Kmart entering into expensive agreements with designers as Target does. They’re looking at their box more as a specialty store with moderate- to-budget-priced style.”

Kim Picciola, a retail analyst at Morningstar Inc., said while consumers are conscious of the store shopping environment, “Wider aisles and bright colors doesn’t mean your products are going to appeal to consumers. You have to have the right merchandise mix.”

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