Sears targets teens with MTV film, LL Cool J gear

June 18, 2008 6:25:57 PM PDT
First came the decision to stock Skechers, a line of footwear teens favor. Then came the personalized avatar, the virtual identity Sears shoppers could accessorize online. Now, the company that once offered in-store hearing aids and dentures is teaming up with MTV to produce a back-to-school movie while adding a line of street clothes and accessories designed by hip-hop artist LL Cool J.

After spending years trying to get shoppers to embrace its softer side, the ailing retailer is still known more for its hardware than handbags. So its latest strategy to stem slumping sales is trying to tap yet another new market: the young, hip and urban.

"While mom may decide what the acceptable place is to shop, the kids are deciding what clothes they want and what places have it," said Richard Gerstein, Sears' chief marketing officer. "If we come out of our season with much more relevance with this group, and improving our sales and profitability with this group, we think it's a big win."

Whether the initiatives can help Sears shed its stale image is up in the air. But what's certain, experts say, is that the chain led by financier Edward Lampert desperately needs to reinvent itself if it's going to survive.

"It's a great place to buy a washing machine, but you wouldn't want to get your jeans there," said Jayne Mountford, vice president of trend reporting for Stylesight, a global retail forecasting firm.

That's the sentiment Sears executives hope "The American Mall" movie and the LL Cool J gear, which will be available in mid-September, can change - particularly among the fickle and trend-conscious teen audience that's so far viewed the chain with caution.

"The American Mall," produced by the team responsible for the tween-loved "High School Musical" series, is a massive cross-promotion between MTV and Sears.

Scenes for the 87-minute film were shot in a Utah Sears store. Characters wear Sears clothes, which shoppers can purchase. And the actors will appear in Sears advertisements and circulars.

Meanwhile, Sears will sell the DVD and soundtrack in stores, while promoting the film and getting commercial time when the movie airs on MTV on Aug. 11.

Neither Sears nor MTV executives would disclose their investment in the project, which has been in the works since November.

"If the movie works, it will benefit Sears certainly, as their exposure will benefit us," said John Shea, the executive vice president of integrated marketing and brand partnerships at MTV Networks Music & Logo Group.

But some industry observers said they don't believe Sears has the credibility to compete in the increasingly crowded teen market. Nor are they sure whether this latest effort will yield more success than previous initiatives aimed at bringing back shoppers.

"Trying to be everything to everybody is difficult because consumers have so many choices," said Morningstar analyst Kim Picciola. "If they can manage to reinvent themselves, I think it will be a big win for them. But I think that's going to be a challenge in this current environment."

Founded in 1886, Sears helped pioneer the mail-order business and grew to become the nation's largest retailer. It remained a back-to school staple for generations but fell out of favor as shoppers who found its brands dowdy and unexciting defected to other stores.

In 2005, Lampert acquired Sears, Roebuck and Co., and merged it with Kmart under the umbrella of Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp.

Under Lampert's leadership, the company initially posted high profits, thanks in part to strong investment income, which has long since disappeared along with the company's once-hefty war chest that's dwindled as it spent billions buying back stock.

During the most recent fiscal year, the company's earnings dropped 44 percent to $826 million. And during the first quarter of 2008, Sears lost $56 million - its largest quarterly loss since the companies combined - and issued a dour sales forecast for the rest of the year.

As sales continue to fall, Sears blames its weak performance on tougher competition and slowing consumer spending because of the weak housing market and credit concerns. The company has also made poor inventory decisions that forced it to mark down items, despite the success of popular brands such as Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard and apparel lines such as Lands' End and Joe Boxer.

All of which makes Sears' comeback that much more difficult to achieve.

"They need to get younger customers in their stores," said Michael Stone, CEO and president of brand licensing agency The Beanstalk Group. "Teenagers have enough trouble walking in Wal-Mart and buying clothes and now they have to walk into Sears and walk through the washing machine and dryer section of the stores? It's going to be very hard."

It's a challenge Sears acknowledges and hopes it can overcome.

"When you talk about Sears ... it's off people's radar. We haven't really been speaking to them," Gerstein said. "I think that this partnerships delivers to us credibility."


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