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Kmart: Spit 'n Shine …and a Bit of Sears

East Brunswick, N.J. — Outside, parking lot signs wrapped around light poles declared Kmart's “Extreme Makeover.” Inside, one could see all four outer walls from one position within the store.

While retailers of all stripes seem to be moving further upscale, Kmart has begun its own version of the march upward to revamp more than 300 stores by the end of 2007.

Some of the changes were visible in 27 Northeast stores that held grand re-openings in late July and included the bold entry of Sears-branded major appliances and tools by Craftsman, a venerable Sears brand. It also called out an expanded furniture “showroom,” centrally located off the center drive aisle.

What's more, in this 120,000-sq.-ft. store a Sears Auto Center will shortly be added. Sears.com signage adorns every major appliance in the new department.

“We took as a start … combining two existing companies and bringing them together and starting fresh as one company,” said Kathryn Pahira, visual merchandising specialist coach for Northern New Jersey. “You still have your freestanding Kmarts and your freestanding Sears, but as a company [we consider ourselves] Sears Holdings. We operate as one family now. And now that we're Sears Holdings, this may have been considered Sears merchandise but now it's all under the same umbrella. Co-branding is the wrong word because we're Sears Holdings, one family, one house.”

Domestics has been shoved across the front of the store, moved from its front-and-center entrance location on the infield to make way for a more stylish presentation — including mannequins and bolder, message-carrying graphics in women's apparel.

Beyond those highly visible merchandise changes, most of the remodel involves improvements in visual merchandising, which lowered fixture heights to create better sight lines, wider aisles, and changes in apparel fixturing and some departmental adjacencies. Drive aisles have been broadened to a very ample 12 feet, while many departmental aisles now are at least five-feet wide — a noticeable improvement.

The stores sport fresh paint with a new color scheme — orange and brown. Six Internet kiosks — an Internet café, without the coffee — line the front of the stores, many where the snack bar was removed.

“We still have our core customer, but then we've brought in a little more fashion, a little more trend to help capture different parts of the market,” Pahira offered. “We want to bring in that customer who would normally shop in a department store — a JCPenney or Kohl's or Sears — but we also want to grow our core customer, too. By bringing this in, they'll realize we've stepped up; we're not just a big-box retailer anymore. We're more headed toward the lines of a Target, which is a moderate department store.”

The stores that reopened during the week of July 23 were mostly in New Jersey but extended also to the Baltimore/Washington area. Executives said approximately 70 stores chainwide would undergo remodels this year and 250 next. They stated that further remodels after that are so far undefined, as the results of this series are evaluated.

Visits during and after the renovations to three stores — in Kearny, Belleville and East Brunswick, N.J., yielded vastly different results largely because of the widely varying footprints Kmart stores have adopted over the years. Company executives acknowledged that the base remodel plan needed to be boldly altered in many cases to make it fit the individual stores. For example, the store in Kearny is just 69,000 square feet and cannot handle the full-scale changes.

Most merchandise assortments have essentially been left untouched, including home textiles, although company executives are quick to point out that the visual merchandising changes are helping to call out earlier improvements in merchandise assortments.

Among the changes:

  • In most stores, women's apparel makes extensive utilization of larger graphics, four-way racks, and for the first time in any Kmart store, the use of mannequins in several locations in men's, women's and children's apparel. Nesting tables offer folded apparel.

  • An expanded RTA furniture department displays sample skus on risers that offset vignettes of furniture groupings off the center drive aisle. More than 70 skus are in the assortment.

  • Infant and juvenile furniture has been pushed up to the outer racetrack, also on risers, away from the narrow side aisles they formerly occupied.

  • Children's apparel has been given more floor space and new fixturing and is offset by a colorful “Disney” wall featuring licensed apparel.

  • Footwear has been moved to the infield.

And beyond the otherwise Sears-oriented moves, Kmart cashiers, in an apparent nod to Wal-Mart, stood at the front of their register aisles to pull customers through.

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