• Jennifer Marks

Swing your partner

When gardening retailer Smith & Hawken announced last week that it was looking to license itself as a "garden-inspired lifestyle" brand to makers of indoor furniture, garden amendments and fertilizers, one could easily have responded: "Get in line."

For last week also brought the news that retailer/licensing monolith Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia will be shifting its Canadian retail partnership from waffling discounter Zellers to the much stronger Sears Canada chain.

And, more spectacularly, repositioning mid-tier retailer Sears will acquire redoubtable cataloger Lands' End in a deal that will bring Lands' End merchandise into Sears' 870 full-line U.S. stores.

"Sears writes a new textbook on acquisitions," trumpeted one headline from TheStreet.com.

In reality, this co-mingling of retail nameplates serves as the next logical evolution of the box as brand. In a market where retailers have become de facto developers of self-branded product — and have emphasized marketing the store itself as a brand — it stands to reason that they will do what any maker of branded product seeks to do: look for opportunities to broaden the reach of the brand.

Take a quick look across the retail landscape. There are plenty of specialty retailers around that could follow the same path, many with a justifiable story to tell in home.

Victoria's Secret, for example, has a strong franchise with the 25-to-45-year-old set, and last year actually made noises about adding some home goods to its flagship store, a plan it ultimately abandoned.

It could work as a multi-brand in department stores and might get a younger woman shopping the channel more frequently.

Teen-oriented cataloger/Internet retailer Delia's has a good grip on its core customer but hasn't paid much attention to its thinly assorted home merchandise — although chairman and ceo Stephen Kahn earlier this year acknowledged he sees a lot of potential there.

A bricks-and-mortar retail partner that needs to buck up its juniors apparel and build a youth home program — and those are Achilles' heels for a number of full-line retailers — could be a good match.

Kid's "R" Us is another format that has figured out what it's looking for with its brand image vis-à-vis the KRU brand rollout.

Unfortunately, parent Toys "R" Us must focus the bulk of its attention on revitalizing the TRU brand. A partnership could give KRU a nice springboard and could give another retailer that needs to put some pop into its children's programs a non-character-driven brand.

No partnership is a slam-dunk, of course, and many a storybook romance has soured into the match made in hell. But recent events certainly suggest that the branding boogie is discovering a whole new beat.

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