By  on September 9, 2005

SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. — A recent tour of the newly merged Kmart/Sears format reveals what the company considers essential in beauty.

Instead of borrowing from either Sears or Kmart, the beauty department is more of a cross between Target and Walgreens. The layout is inspired by discount stores and the selection is reminiscent of a drugstore.

Opened here in mid-June, this Sears Essentials store occupies a former Kmart store. Sears Essentials units are off-mall stores leveraging the best of Sears along with key brands from Kmart — Kenmore meets Martha Stewart. The company sees it as a major growth vehicle with 100 more stores planned to open this year and 400 by 2007. Many of the stores are conversions of existing Kmart units. Essentials stores are in 12 states — Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia.

When the concept was launched, Sears former chief executive officer Alan Lacy said the new format enables Sears to "grow its brand off-mall." The smaller footprint allows the company to grow in strip centers as well as lifestyle shopping malls.

Neither chain was particularly strong in beauty prior to the merger. Sears ventured in and out of the category over the years and retreated almost totally after its venture with Circle of Beauty. Kmart tried several different strategies with cosmetics — moving the department away from jewelry and experimenting with various homes in the store design. Kmart tinkered with private label cosmetics, but never established its voice in beauty.

In Essentials, Sears appears to have found what it wants to be — a discount-store format offering selection and value. A major focus is on multicultural consumers, especially Hispanics. All store signage is in English and Spanish and there's an ample ethnic hair care department and a big selection of Milani Cosmetics, a growing brand for women of color.

In designing the beauty area, Sears tossed out conventional Kmart and Sears approaches and adopted a Target racetrack approach. In this store, beauty is off to the left of the entrance. The universal beauty fixturing features a red header to identify the brand selection that is as vast as most drug chains. There is a big commitment to Revlon, as well as more than 12 feet of Maybelline. CoverGirl, NYC, Wet 'n' Wild, L'Oréal, Max Factor and Colorama round out the color cosmetics selection. On a recent visit, there were clerks stocking the department, but not assisting shoppers.

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