MADISON, WIS. — MADISON, Wis. -- Three years after Sears placed Lands' End clothing on racks throughout its stores, the company is experimenting with a new approach: Lands' End stores within the stores.
Sears opened its latest such store in Madison last month and three others in New York and New Jersey late last year.
If enough customers like the new concept, Sears will expand it. This year, Sears plans to open 25 Lands' End shops in Sears stores in the Northeast, Lands' End spokeswoman Jackie Schutty said.
"It's a place right now where our brand really resonates with the customer," Schutty said of the Northeast locations.
The store-within-a-store consolidates nearly all of Lands' End products into one area of the store and has 15 percent to 20 percent more of the product than other stores, Schutty said.
In each store, walls are painted navy blue and white, and marked with large white Lands' End logos. The latest catalogs are available on a coffee table, which is flanked by a sofa and chairs upholstered in navy and white. Shoppers can place online orders on a computer and have items shipped free to their homes. Or they can use a phone to be connected immediately to a customer service representative in Dodgeville, Wis.
Sears has been tweaking its Lands' End merchandising since it bought the catalog retailer in 2002.
The initial goal was to give Sears' lagging apparel sales a shot in the arm by introducing the more upscale classic Lands' End clothes in its stores. Sears said the Lands' End customer profile - middle-class and educated - matched the demographic of shoppers who bought tools and appliances at Sears. By putting Lands' End products in the stores, Sears hoped to lure those customers to its "soft side" departments, which appealed to a less affluent group of shoppers.
By 2004, former Sears' Chief Executive Officer Alan Lacy admitted there were problems with the plan. Lower-income Sears shoppers weren't familiar with Lands' End, and the brand was too expensive for them, he said in a conference call in July 2004.
Retail analysts noted other flaws. With the merchandise spread across the stores, loyal Lands' End catalog customers visiting a Sears store were forced to hunt for the brand. Meanwhile, customers used to Lands' End service found it was lacking in the Sears stores.
Sales of Lands' End products were flat in stores for the first six months of 2004.
Since then, Sears has tinkered with the mix and quantity of Lands' End products, to better match customer demand. But overall apparel sales in the stores continue to lag, according to the latest financial report from Sears Holdings Corp., which bought the chain a year ago. Sales at stores open at least a year declined by 12.2 percent for the quarter ended Jan. 28.
The new Lands' End effort at Sears involves more staff from Lands' End in the planning and running of the shops, particularly at the Madison location, which was chosen for its proximity to Dodgeville.
"It's been a really great collaboration this go-around," said Schutty.
Sears is recruiting people to work in the Lands' End shops who will be trained to sell and service the brand.
"Lands' End is one of the finest national brands that Sears has in the store, with an impeccable reputation for quality and customer loyalty," said Anne Brouwer, a partner at McMillan & Doolittle, a retail consulting firm in Chicago. "It really makes sense to treat it as such and make it a store in the store."
The store-within-a-store concept is a good approach, but it might be too late, said Candace Corlett, a partner at WSJ Strategic Retail.
"They had their shot at doing Lands' End very well a couple of years ago," Corlett said. They didn't, she said, and loyal Lands' End customers were turned off.
Now Sears' challenge will be to win them back, and to try to attract new customers for the brand.