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Sears Adds Home Products, Apparel to Online Tool Belt

The giant retailer hopes to build on the success it has had online with its Lands' End business.

September 13, 2004|From Associated Press

Sears, Roebuck & Co., which has successfully sold its tools and appliances on the Web, is counting on having the same magic with bedspreads and sweaters, thanks in part to expertise gained by its purchase of Lands' End Inc.

The venture by the Hoffman Estates, Ill., retailer into online sales of home furnishings and apparel, which officially launches today, may be considered late.

But executives say tapping into the expertise of Lands' End -- which Sears acquired two years ago and is considered a leading innovator in online selling -- will enable the No. 6 U.S. retailer to jump ahead of the competition.

"We are going to leapfrog further than anybody else right now online," said Bill Bass, vice president and general manager of Sears' customer direct division. "We're starting where Lands' End is and pushing it further."

Sears.com has incorporated some of the same features that Lands' End pioneered on the Web, such as the "virtual model," which lets customers enter body measurements such as waist and bust size to get an idea of how an outfit will look. But there are other features not yet available on Landsend.com, such as a zooming technology that focuses on fabric and texture. Sears.com customers also can switch colors for all product illustrations, not just on the virtual model.

And though Lands' End sells home furnishings online, it does not have a virtual decorator, something that Sears.com now has. That tool allows customers to click on such choices as bedding, floor finishes and paint to create a bedroom in cyberspace; a virtual kitchen will be added in the fall.

Retailers including Home Depot Inc. have similar virtual decorators, but Sears' version allows consumers to pick such details as paintings and lamps.

Industry analysts praised the site for innovation but wondered whether a positive apparel experience on Sears.com could hurt the retailer's efforts to improve sluggish clothing sales at its 820 stores, which have dragged down the company's overall business.

A favorable experience online could accentuate a not-so-great experience in the store, said Carrie Johnson, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based Internet research company.

That inconsistency, Johnson said, is the company's "strength and weakness."

At the same time, she said, the online presence would "remind customers that Sears sells apparel." And "if apparel takes off," Johnson said, "the stores can learn about the right merchandise and try to target that merchandise better."

About 50% of Sears' apparel offerings and about 70% of its home furnishings merchandise will be available on Sears.com.

Sears' move comes at a time of increasingly strong growth for online apparel. Online sales of apparel and accessories, excluding shoes and jewelry, are expected to grow to $7.5 billion this year from $6.2 billion last year, according to Jupiter Research. By 2008, the number could hit $12 billion, accounting for 4.9% of all apparel sales.

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