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CHAIN REACTIONS : Department Store Granddaddies Sears and J C Penney Have Shed Their Dowdy Images to Compete in the Stylish Women's Apparel Market


Those who still remember Sears and JCPenney for their harsh fluorescent lighting, tacky mannequins and dated polyester fashions probably haven't visited either of the retailing giants in years. Both department store chains have changed dramatically--luring shoppers by putting new emphasis on women's apparel. They're attempting to offer trendier styles housed in appealing environments. "We are looking to attract those people who have given up on Sears because it had a dowdy, polyester, mundane image," says Janice Drummond, spokeswoman for Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago. As have Kmart, Target and other chains that attract budget-minded clothes buyers, Sears and JC Penney have rediscovered the potentially lucrative women's apparel departments.

With its bank of televisions tuned to MTV, hip post-nuclear decor and racks of denim jackets and floral vintage-style dresses, the juniors department at Sears in Westminster Mall looks like any trendy young women's clothing store. Much of the clothing is the same carried at many juniors retailers, with recognizable brand names such as Union Bay and All That Jazz.

Across the aisle, the women's department offers career and sportswear in more subdued surroundings. A few tasteful black and white floral etchings hang on the walls, and soft lighting illuminates the racks of clothing. Where polyester once ruled, now silk blouses, cotton knit tops and rayon separates in neutral ethnic prints beckon.

"I've been here 15 years, and I've seen the polyester come and go," says Renee Shephard, sales manager for the Westminster Sears women's department. While she would like to see a better selection of career wear, she says Sears' fashion assortment has come a long way.

"Many people are saying, 'Gosh, is Sears carrying this kind of stuff now?' Our look is new, and the clothes are new."

JCPenney in Brea Mall opened about six months ago, one of a growing number of stores throughout the chain that have an upscale look to go with their improved and expanded fashions.

"We've increased the square footage for women's clothing, accessories and fine jewelry by 50%," says Alan Rogers, store manager.

Honey maple paneling and soft recessed lighting are found throughout the women's department. The floors are marble, and the displays feature understated decorator touches such as topiaries and silk flowers.

Only a handful of mannequins can be found on the entire women's floor. Rogers says competitors have been seen snapping photos of two female mannequins dressed in career wear who look almost human as they lean over the banister above the escalator.

"I like a store to be dramatic but tasteful," Rogers says.

Although one can still find polyester pants at JCPenney, the emphasis is on trendier styles, including rayon and washed silk palazzos, jackets, skirts and tunic tops. Updated looks such as short palazzos in an ethnic print of brown, gold and purple rayon ($74) and matching long tunic ($94) by A.K.F., a national brand, are prominently displayed.

JCPenney and Sears decided to bolster their women's apparel because they did not want to lose their women customers to more fashion-conscious competitors. Both retailers are found in malls, and most mall shoppers are women buying clothes for themselves.

"In analyzing what customers were looking for at the (shopping centers), it was apparent they were looking for fashion merchandise. For things like automotive, they were going elsewhere," says Marshall Beere, divisional vice president and director of merchandising in charge of misses for JCPenney Co. Inc. in Dallas.

"We realized if we were going to get our fair share of money being spent on (apparel), it was in our best interests to raise the assortment of fashion merchandise."

Sears also feared losing women to other mall shops.

"We needed to attract (women) who shopped in malls but never at Sears," says Janice Drummond, spokeswoman for Sears. Those women who were shopping at Sears tended to buy things for her husband or children, "but never herself."

Sears began to revamp its women's apparel in the late '80s. The company added new clothing buyers, began ordering apparel closer to the season so the styles would be current and established a new fashion office to monitor trends in fabric, color and silhouettes.

But something more was needed.

"We still felt we were not attracting women who had been turned off" by the old Sears, Drummond says. So in September 1993, the company launched an ad campaign to call attention to the changes.

Called "the softer side of Sears," the campaign invites women into the stores to see their updated apparel. The ads play off of Sears' traditional strong point--hard-line merchandise such as tools and auto parts.

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