• Andrea Lillo

Sears mart stands on its own

West Jordan, UT — It's nurture over nature. Merchandising over merchandise.

The soft opening last week of the first of five Sears Grand stores represents the retailer's effort to break with its 30-plus year history of anchoring malls like a department store and moving closer to its mass merchant roots. It's a striking departure, to say the least.

"The presentation of goods is significantly different than the full-line stores," said Jerry Post, senior vp, general manager, Sears' off-mall strategy, Sears retail. That's intended to result in a pleasant, friendly and comfortable environment. In addition, "There's more product on the floor."

With high ceilings, wider aisles, additional product categories, large, bright signage and an expanded home area, Sears Grand is positioned less as a merchandise story and more as a presentation and format story, Post explained.

Hard bare floors are offset by an exposed corrugated steel roof and structural steel beams. Bright halogen lighting is powerfully reminiscent of warehouse or superstore operations.

Sears, which transitioned from freestanding downtown sites in the late '60s and '70s, has been struggling with sluggish growth in the mall format for years. Now it's trying to wedge its way back into the freestanding retailer pool, and its updated format in the Jordan Landing shopping center here, counts Sam's Club, Lowes, Wal-Mart and, next year, Kohl's, among its neighbors — as well as competitors.

Other rivals include Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Linens 'n Things, Best Buy and Home Depot — all off-mall players.

"We're not concerned with the department store trade," Post told HTT during a preview of the store.

Flying high
Inside, the 210,000-square-foot store feels expansive, thanks to the one-level layout and ceilings that reach up 25 feet at the front, sloping to 18 feet high at the back. Before the store was filled with merchandise, "it reminded me of an airplane hanger," said Kelly Mulherin, the store's manager.

The list of new categories and services is long — and sounds suspiciously like a discount supercenter: health and beauty, household goods and cleaning, pet food, one-hour photo, perishables and dry goods, custom window blind cutting, a Starbucks-like Java City cafe, key cutting and price checkers are a few.

Toys will be offered year round, instead of only seasonally, as they are in the full-line stores, and areas such as home electronics, draperies and home decor have expanded. Categories Sears is known for — appliances and hardware — are here, too.

"Now you can buy a refrigerator and the milk to go in it," said Mulherin. In addition, "the adjacencies are very logical to what the customer is looking for."

Sears' footprint is predetermined in most mall formats, Post told HTT. "Here we built the store around the goods instead of fitting the goods in the space allotted."

The format also layers 45,000 to 55,000 additional skus on top of those commonly in a full-line store, he said.

What's the frequency?
"We have a lot of learning to do," he admitted. "But for sure, we expect the customer to shop here more often — two to three times a week — and more often than at the mall-based stores."

Fifteen percent more merchandise has been brought out of the backroom onto the floor, Post added.

The 19 price checkers throughout the store are easy to spot with their bright yellow color. They're alongside customer assistance phones. Way-finder signs are big and bright. The aisles — two to six feet wider — are intentionally void of merchandise tables, allowing for better traffic flow. Only an 18-foot-wide drive aisle, dubbed "the boulevard," will have such displays.

Twenty central checkouts — 10 on each side of fine jewelry at the front end — handle customer transactions. Some departments, like electronics, automotive and lawn and garden, will still have registers.

Largest footprint
Home fashions, including soft and hard home, has the largest footprint in the store, and Post said 15 percent more merchandise was added to the home area. He said both the merchandise and the private label/national brand mix were similar to those found in a full-line store.

In this location, home fashions was located at the left at the back of the store. Window and bath were against the wall, facing bedding, which included storage — another expanded category. A run of table linens was found in the table top section.

The window category has expanded, in both hard and soft treatments, as well as with the added service of cutting blinds, emphasizing its place as a one-stop outlet — a theme echoed throughout the store.

Most merchandise within home textiles was under the Sears' Whole Home label, with a strong showing of the New Traditions brand. A smattering of Lands' End sheets, flannel sheet and towels were also shown and will grow as "that increases in velocity," Post said.

"Bedding is a very important category to this store, and bath is equally as important …We hope to generate far more cross-shopping in this store than in the mall stores because it's easier to shop."

Pillowtex brands such as Fieldcrest and Cannon Royal Family were also among the assortment, but Sears is "transitioning out of it, unless something happens. You clearly can't wait forever to fill the shelves. But they are great brands," Post opined.

Four additional Sears Grand store openings are on the schedule. A unit in suburban Chicago, in Gurnee Mills, will open next spring, and a third in Las Vegas will join it in the fall. Rancho Cucamonga, CA, and probably Austin, TX will follow, Post said.

Any other rollout talk is "premature" much like the format itself, which will remain in test mode for the foreseeable future. Post said each unit will have different sizes and adjacencies, "to see what the customer values — what she likes and doesn't like."

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HTT Cover October 2017

See the October 2017 issue of Home & Textiles Today. In this issue, we look at the Top 25 Online Retailers.  H&TT's exclusive annual ranking of the biggest online sellers of home textiles finds that while pure play etailers continue to fly, bricks & clicks are digging into omnichannel. See details!