K mart Corp. is looking for a little respect.
By using celebrities to sell its goods and by expanding into a wide array of specialty stores from Waldenbooks to Builders Square do-it-yourself stores, the retailing giant is trying to move beyond its blue-light specials and blue-collar shoppers.
"My goal is to make K mart the most respected dominant retailer in America," says Joseph E. Antonini, who this week assumes the chairmanship of the nation's second-largest retailer.
The famous blue-light specials remain at the 2,200 K marts across the country, but the rest of the 25-year-old American institution has slowly but steadily been changing under the helm of departing Chairman Bernard Fauber, 65, and Antonini, who has been K mart's president since August, 1986.
K mart's aim is simple: expand its customer base to include a more affluent, fashion-conscious consumer.
To meet that goal, K mart has been busy upgrading its stores and merchandise. The first notable changes began taking place in the early 1980s, when the retailer started to remodel its stores, replacing the endless racks of clothes with smaller, more varied displays highlighted by brighter signs and graphics.
Introduced Celebrity Line
At the same time, the stores began selling more expensive, popular name-brand merchandise, including Sassoon and Adolfo clothing and Cuisinart food processors.
Then, in 1985, K mart began upgrading its own private-label merchandise, introducing, among other things, the company's first celebrity line--the Jaclyn Smith Signature Collection of women's sportswear sponsored by one of the television stars of "Charlie's Angels."
The Jaclyn Smith line was an instant success, with more than 75% of the initial order sold out in just 11 weeks. Its success continues today, with the clothes sold just days after they reach the store.
"There's something magical about that line," said Antonini, who was responsible for its introduction. "Its clothes change five times a year. It's amazing to see customers wait for the change; it sells so fast," he added.
With the backing of hostess Martha Stewart, K mart is set to introduce another celebrity line in its Kitchen Korner home-fashion department.
Having signed a five-year contract with K mart, Stewart month will soon begin issuing Kornerstone tip sheets to K mart shoppers, giving them advice on a variety of subjects from how to use a cheese grater to how to plan a low-cost outdoor brunch. Stewart also will work with K mart merchandisers to create new products, bearing her name, for the kitchen and home entertaining.
Offers Customers a Choice
"Changing K mart doesn't necessarily mean losing our fundamentals or our discounting concept," Antonini said in a recent interview. Rather, it means giving customers a greater choice in certain key areas, he said.
"Instead of just carrying all cheap merchandise, we're now giving our customers a choice. Today the customer can buy both a $3.96 and a $12.96 pair of shorts. The $12.96 pair will have a belt buckle, a pleat, a pocket flap and a nice fashion. A $3.96 will be a straight pull-on short you might want to wear around the house. The point is we carry both and everything in between. We used to carry just a $3.96 and a $4.96 short."
These changes have won applause from retailing experts and financial analysts who in the past often criticized the company for responding too slowly to the changing consumer and retail environment.
"It is slowly catching up with the shopper orientation of today," said Kurt Barnard, editor of his own retailing newsletter. "It has stopped being the polyester empire which it was," he added.
"Once customers recognize the fashion message K mart is trying to project, the retailer's slogan, 'America's favorite store,' will be accepted by the middle-America, middle-income consumer, whether he wears a blue or white collar," commented Walter F. Loeb of Morgan Stanley & Co.
Much of the credit is given to the hard-charging, no-nonsense Antonini, who has overseen most of the chain's merchandise changes. The 46-year-old retailer began his retailing career as a stock boy in a West Virginia K mart. "He has creativity and a sense of urgency that K mart needs," Loeb said.
In addition to remerchandising its stores, K mart has also embarked on an aggressive diversification campaign--buying specialty stores and launching new retailing ventures--after concluding that the opportunities for expanding K mart stores were narrowing.
"We recognized many years ago before the actual fact that we couldn't build 200 K marts a year forever," said Michael G. Wellman, vice president for corporate planning.
As a result, the company began reviewing its options. "We realized that our real expertise is our ability to replicate stores very quickly," Wellman said.