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Despite Verdict, Stewart's Product Line Still Selling

Shoppers at Kmart continue to buy her brand of sheets and pillowcases regardless.

March 08, 2004|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

The marketing swamis predicting that Martha Stewart's conviction means her brand is toast haven't met the people who shop at Kmart in Northridge.

They carried on as usual over the weekend. Pushing carts down aisles of sheets, quilts and baby clothes, beneath pictures of Stewart reclining with a book and a radiant smile, some expressed sympathy for the domestic diva. Others said she got what she deserved from a federal jury in New York, which found her guilty Friday of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying to the government.

But an unscientific survey found unanimity on one point: Their buying patterns were as likely to be influenced by Stewart's legal woes as by dust storms on Mars.

LaDonna Readmond, a schoolteacher from Santa Clarita, said Stewart, while probably guilty, was the target of overzealous prosecution.

In any event, Readmond said, clutching a shower curtain from the Martha Stewart Everyday line, she appreciated chic but inexpensive Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia products.

"I do think it's cool that she took what she knew about her sense of style ... to Kmart instead of Bonwit Teller," she said. "It's made style affordable to people on a budget."

Sue Scott, a Burbank resident who works at Universal Studios, said Stewart's conviction wasn't affecting her, either. "You're going for a quality product," she said. "If you didn't buy stuff based on people committing a crime, you'd never buy anything."

Catherine Calvin, a Granada Hills resident who sells office supplies, said she thought it was "funny she was convicted, actually. I think she thinks she's above the law."

But, Calvin continued, "I still buy her stuff." And, she added, she disliked the idea of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which "employs hundreds and hundreds of people," going down the tubes with its founder.

Peter Sealey, a UC Berkeley marketing professor, had a different view than the one in the aisles: After rising on Stewart's reputation for domestic perfection, he said, her brand is imperiled.

Even if customers don't shun products from her company, image-conscious advertisers and business partners may feel they have to jump ship.

A renaming of the company or a mea culpa by Stewart might save the day, he said. "If she came out and ... said 'I have screwed up and I did something enormously dumb for chump change,' she might be able to mitigate some of this."

Stewart was found guilty of four counts of conspiracy, obstruction and lying to the government in the midst of an investigation into insider trading of stock in ImClone Systems Inc. She sold her shares for about $228,000 the day before an announcement by the Food and Drug Administration that it would not approve an ImClone anti-cancer drug. The sale netted her about $50,000 more than she would have received had she sold after the news became public.

She was accused along with her broker, Peter E. Bacanovic, of contriving a cover story about a standing order to sell the shares once the price fell to $60. Stewart and Bacanovic, who also was convicted, are to be sentenced June 17.

At a local newsstand, Joan Coston of Northridge, a fan of Stewart's television show and Martha Stewart Living magazine, offered her opinion of that.

"Look at the others," she said, "who've gotten away with hundreds of times more than she did. That's what's sad."

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