May 27, 2010, 11:47 AM

Back to the future

(Page 2 of 3)

Sears also included a mobile component to its Personal Shopper program in December that allows a consumer seeking a hard-to-find item to communicate with a Sears representative by e-mail, phone call or live chat from a Sears web site. In addition, a consumer can download the PersonalShopper app to her mobile phone, take a picture of a desired item with her phone’s camera and e-mail the photo to a Sears personal shopper. The agent then attempts to find the desired item and alerts the shopper when it is available for pickup.

Nor has Sears ignored its eight e-commerce sites in its bid to offer consumers convenience. Simplicity was the driving force behind a redesign of the Sears family of web sites unveiled in February.

The retailer added six ever-present expandable icons—a mini-cart, profile, wish lists, recently viewed items, personal shopper and a toolbox—so shoppers could perform many common tasks without clicking away from the page they’re on. When a shopper mouses over the recently viewed icon, for instance, it expands out to show her a photo, product name and price for the last few product pages she viewed across each of Sears’ various web sites. The shopping cart also allows a consumer to shop across all the Sears sites and check out once, borrowing a concept introduced by retail chain Gap and others.

Sears’ use of icons cleans up the page, says Betsy Emery, CEO of Tellus, a Cincinnati web site design and consulting firm. “The icons break down the language barriers giving the site a clean, simple feel,” she says.

Sears also overhauled its category pages. When a shopper clicks on a category, such as “bottoms,” she is taken to a page with a gallery view that shows images of 72 shorts, pants and skirts, as well as options for narrowing her selection, such as to “pants.” The shopper can also switch to a “package” view that only shows a product image and price; clicking on an image lets her select size and color.

Recognizing the strength of its sub-brands, Sears has separate e-commerce sites for Craftsman, Kenmore and Lands’ End. Those brands are important assets for Sears, says Frank Luby, partner and retail pricing specialist at consulting firm Simon-Kucher & Partners. “Sears has equity in those spaces in that those brands have been around for generations,” he says. “You can’t just create that type of positive, well-received brand image overnight.”

But the identity of Sears and Kmart has become nebulous, Luby contends. “If you stop someone on the street he won’t be able to tell you what Sears stands for,” he says.

Broader selection
Sears has deep roots selling goods like tools and appliances. But it hasn’t been as strong in other categories, for instance, video games. To fill those gaps, Sears introduced the Marketplace on Sears.com last summer, which increased assortment on the site by nearly 10 million products, says Jooma.

Sears opened up its site to other online retailers at almost the same time as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. launched a similar marketplace at Walmart.com. Both are hoping to replicate the success of Amazon.com, where 1.9 million outside merchants accounted for 28% of Amazon’s unit sales in the fourth quarter of last year. Like Amazon, Sears allows merchants three selling options—merchants can sell in a branded online store, let Sears hold inventory and fulfill orders, or they can buy cost-per-click ads that drive shoppers to the retailer’s own web site.

Thanks to the broad customer base of Sears.com, which attracted 14.62 million unique visitors in March, the Marketplace already has attracted more than 1,500 merchants, among them online retailer UnbeatableSale.com Inc., which has about 400,000 SKUs on the site. “Sears has a customer base that is loyal and we want to tap into it,” says Eli Fischer, the company’s vice president.

While UnbeatableSale’s overall sales on Sears.com are less than sales on its Amazon web store, its average order value is higher because the products it’s selling, like tools and housewares, are higher-priced than those that sell on Amazon.

Jooma says the Sears Market-place was aimed at opening up Sears to a new group of shoppers. “There are shoppers who have a preconception of what Sears sells, but there are plenty of shoppers who do not,” he says. But Okamura of J.C. Williams Group is skeptical that consumers will change their buying behaviors rapidly. “It’s not that easy to get people to think of Sears for categories or products that it isn’t top of mind for,” he says.

The MySears Community
There is a segment of shoppers that do have Sears top of mind. They’re loyal enough that they’ve signed up for the MySears Community, a social network that offers discounts of up to 10% on select purchase and other perks. The more than 466,000 registered members use the community site to talk about products they’ve bought, customer service experiences gone awry or what they’d like to see Sears add.

“The site allows us to open a conversation with our customers,” says Rob Harles, vice president of social media and community. “We find out things on there that we never would have otherwise known.” For instance, a customer’s request for “new, trendy styles for younger shoppers” led a Sears representative to seek guidance from that community member, as well as any others in the community, that she could pass along to the company’s designers.

Sears harvests those potential ideas or nagging problems that aren’t readily apparent on the MySears idea forum. There shoppers can post ideas, such as “Offer a price scanner in every department.” Community members can then give a thumb’s up or down on the idea.

Having such a deep pool of customers provides valuable feedback, says Rosenblum. “Social networks create loyalty and a sense of community—even if they’re bitching, at least the retailer is providing the community where they can share,” she says.

But others are not convinced. For instance, Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail consulting firm Davidowitz & Associates, argues that social media is a distraction, when Sears should focus on cutting costs and prices. “That’s the single most important thing Sears can do,” he says.

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