Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK — Sears, Roebuck keeps firing on all cylinders.
The 109-year-old retailer, long known as a spot for garden and auto supplies and for its fat catalog, has transformed itself into a major player in apparel, accessories and beauty and has succeeded in getting the message to the public with its continuing “softer side of Sears” campaign. More importantly, the company has been able to maintain increases in same-store sales and its margins in a tough environment.
Sears, which ranked eighth in the WWD survey, has a strong following among women 50 to 64 years old with children and household incomes between $35,000 and $49,999.
Among consumers who picked it as their favorite store, 47.6 percent cited the affordable prices, while 61.9 percent said the selection and variety of merchandise was their primary reason for picking Sears. And 52.4 percent said style of clothing, particularly in leisure and casual apparel, as well as size availability and fit, were key factors.
Much of the credit goes to chairman and chief executive officer Arthur C. Martinez, a savvy retail executive who came to an ailing Sears four years ago and implemented the changes. Martinez, who arrived with high-end specialty store experience — he came from Saks Fifth Avenue — and with more know-how on the operations side than merchandising, pushed Sears to the number three spot in terms of volume behind Wal-Mart and Kmart. Martinez restructured the business into department store and hard-goods operations, divesting its insurance and real-estate businesses; closed the catalog and unprofitable stores; initiated a five-year, $4 billion remodeling project of more than 500 stores, and opened new stores in good locations.
Sears’ revenues jumped from about $30.4 billion in 1993 to about $35 billion in 1995 and is expected to top $38 billion this year.
In October, the retailer announced an alliance with Liz Claiborne to carry its First Issue label exclusively. That collection, and its 77 retail units, were shut down by Claiborne last year, but Sears officials feel the moderate line of casual and career separates and knits can be rebuilt into a major brand. It’s part of Sears’ strategy to attract national brands, including Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler, Arrow, Playtex and Timberland.
But its private label programs, specifically Canyon River Blues and Circle of Beauty, have been strong performers. Crossroads, a casual weekend wear misses’ line that made its debut in September, is also getting good reviews from consumers, the company said.
Sears also turned up the volume on underdeveloped areas in apparel, such as special sizes, family footwear, men’s wear and intimate apparel.
This fall, according to Wall Street retail analysts, the chain is experiencing strong double-digit increases in apparel and solid performances from handbags and other accessories, fine jewelry and cosmetics.
Sears has more than 800 full-line, mall-based department stores in the U.S., including eight that opened this month in California. These were former Broadway units, and the new stores are expected to “jump-start an already strong business in California,” said Martinez.
The company also operates 100 HomeLife full-line furniture stores, 100 “neighborhood” hardware stores, 800 Sears Auto Centers, 400 Western Auto Stores, 270 NTW or Tire America stores, 190 Parts America stores, and 900 franchised Western Auto and 375 smaller-town hard lines dealer stores.