NEW YORK — Sears, Roebuck & Co. has decided to compete for fashion sales in cyberspace even as it has struggled to sell apparel in its stores.
A reengineered sears.com, for the first time selling tens of thousands of apparel items and home fashion products, as well as continuing to sell appliances, hardware and other hard goods, officially goes live today.
Sears’ effort to strengthen itself in fashion comes after it reported an 82.8 percent plunge in profits and a 2.9 percent drop in domestic same-store sales for the second quarter that ended June 28. The company, which generated $41 billion in revenue last year, sold its profitable credit card and financial services division in 2003.
Sears’ chief executive officer Alan Lacy said in reporting second-quarter results that in apparel “we continued to be affected by the product assortment and inventory issues. We lacked a sufficient amount of fashion-oriented spring product in what has been a strong fashion-driven season.” He added that “most of these issues are expected to be resolved as we move into the fall season.”
The revamped Web site will feature more than 14,000 national brand and private label items from Lee, Levi’s, Dockers and Russell, and the Sears-owned Apostrophe and Covington brands, among other lines. There will also be about 30,000 Lands’ End apparel and home items initially and another 50,000 by the end of the fourth quarter. Lands’ End was purchased by Sears for $1.9 billion in May of 2002. In addition, more than 6,400 bed and bath home fashion items, under the Sears and Lands’ End labels will be available.
Included in the offerings are two major apparel introductions: A Line, the updated fashion line of women’s apparel made exclusively for Sears by Jones Apparel Group, and Structure, the former Limited Brands men’s label purchased by Sears last year, which has been remade with casual men’s apparel, footwear and accessories. A Line, which gets distributed to 450 Sears stores this fall, will add footwear and accessories in 2005. Structure gets distributed to about 100 stores this fall.
“From not selling apparel, we are going to leapfrog everybody, and have the most advanced apparel selling online,” Bill Bass, Sears’ vice president and general manager of customer direct, said in an interview. “A year ago, we couldn’t have done this because the product wasn’t ready. There were merchandise issues, but we believe the merchants have addressed them. There are marked changes in the quality.”
Sears officials declined to project sales for the souped-up sears.com, but said that last year the Internet site generated $300 million in sales. Landsend.com produced $511 million in sales in 2003. Sears’ total customer direct sales, which includes catalogues, reached $2 billion last year.
Bass said sears.com and landsend.com are tracking 40 percent increases in 2004.
Sears’ Web site had only offered hard lines such as home electronics and appliances, grills, computers, some automotive supplies, lawn and garden and parts for appliances. Apparel was limited to a few links to licensed catalogues and the landsend.com site, and school uniforms under the brand name French Toast.
“Apparel has been the second-most-requested category on the Sears Web site” next to appliances, even though it was barely available, Bass said.
Lands’ End merchandise has been integrated into sears.com for easier shopping and all catalogue links have been removed. Aside from sears.com, Lands’ End can be shopped on landsend.com and Amazon. Lands’ End’s presentation will be “essentially the entire assortment,” Bass said. Before shoppers had to link over to the Lands’ End site to shop the brand online.
An average Sears store sells 54,000 apparel items and 7,000 items in home fashions, compared with sears.com’s initial 50,000 plus items. Shipping costs start at $5.95 and go up from there based on weight.
Bass said months of quality and style upgrading raised confidence in the apparel assortments, and the move online is abetted by the advanced Web technologies adopted from Lands’ End. The Lands’ End technology is best known for its “My Virtual Model” function, enabling consumers to create models in their own image bearing their characteristics, such as hair and eye color, body shape, facial hair, height and weight and dress up the models with the clothes they chose. Based on the selection and the look of the virtual model, sears.com automatically makes recommendations on matching items.
Sears.com. is the first site to apply the technology to multiple brands on a single Web site. My Virtual Model, founded by Louise Guay, has advanced its software so that the images are not so rudimentary and there’s more of a likeness to the user. “In the beginning, it was almost cartoon-like. Now it‘s lifelike,” said Ted McDougal, Sears’ director of business and financial communications.
On sears.com, there is also a zoom-in feature, to get a close-up look at product details and textures and a rotation feature so you can see how the clothes look from the front and the back.
“The fashion presentation is something we can really control online,” Bass said. “We can always make sure the products are displayed well and we have lots of tools to provide customer service online. It’s hard to do in the stores. Apparel advice is harder to get in the stores. Nobody has the combination of tools that we have online.”
Also, My Virtual Model has been developed so you can decorate a room with curtains, bedding, wall art, lamps and their shadow effects, and see the room from different angles and how it looks in different paint colors.
As far as infrastructure, there are two call centers in Round Red, Tex., and Des Moines, Iowa. A warehouse located in Naperville, Ill., near Sears’ headquarters in Hoffman Estates, has been added to service sears.com.
Store signage, preprints, television ads and the Web site itself, will all help hype the new sears.com. The transactional Web site was originally launched in 1999 and became profitable in 2002, according to Sears. It’s considered the top- selling Web site for appliances, lawn and garden and fitness products.