CHICAGO--Sears, Roebuck & Co. could be the comeback story of the decade. In the Eighties, the chain slipped from the top sales generator to third place in American retailing, as its stores grew tired, disorganized and unproductive. Then Arthur Martinez stepped in, joining the company as chairman and chief executive of the Sears Merchandise Group in 1992. He's been fearlessly transforming the 107-year-old retail behemoth, in a highly publicized and touted turnaround effort. He shut down the legendary "big book" Sears catalog, and embarked on a full-scale restructuring, closing 113 unprofitable stores and slashing 50,000 jobs. Since then, big gains have been seen. In the second quarter of this year, earnings rose 22.6 percent, driven primarily by an 18 percent increase in home sales and an 8 percent increase in apparel sales. Sears reports 26 million active credit accounts. Sears operates 799 multiline department stores, 412 of which are located in major metro areas. Last year, the company's volume topped $50.8 billion. Sears's core customer is a working woman 30 to 39 years old or 50 to 64 years old, with household income of $25,000 to $35,000 or $50,000 to $70,000. Many do not have children living at home. The survey indicates that six out of 10 Sears customers chose it because of selection or variety of apparel. Location is the second major reason, chosen by 50 percent of respondents, followed by price (40 percent), size/fit (30 percent) and brand name/quality (20 percent). Sears customers' reasons for selecting the store were, as one said, "Their sizes fit me. It is close to home. I have a charge account." Another reiterated, "You can get everything you need without going to two different stores. The price is reasonable." Still another cited Sears because, "They have clothing suitable for a 60-year-old woman. Their prices are reasonable, compared to Penney's and Burdines. They have a large selection." In terms of favorite store by type of apparel, Sears scored fifth in jeans and third in swimwear. Apparel now accounts for about 28 percent of total sales and is continuing to grow. The increases are partly attributed to a snappy television campaign, "The softer side of Sears," designed to lure women back to the store. The company is giving its stores a radical facelift, through a huge remodeling project involving 500 units. Sears re-entered the cosmetics business last year. New departments will be in place in 120 stores by the end of the year, featuring brands such as Revlon, L'Oréal, Almay, Frances Denney, Color Me Beautiful, Cosmyl, Dermablend and Flori Roberts. Sears is also working on a private label line for next fall to fill some voids.
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