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Is Sears Serious? From Kenmore to Bondage Wear

JCPenney is not the only major department store chain trying to reinvent itself these days. Sears, whose hard reputation was literally built with Craftsmen tools and Kenmore appliances, tried years ago to move to the “softer side” with slightly higher-end fashion. It most-recently tried to change the brand image by moving to the sumptuous side, offering luxury goods like Jimmy Choo, Chanel, and Stella McCartney via their online Marketplace. And now it apparently has moved to the much harder side of Sears, when it was discovered last week that it had a wide variety of bondage and fetish clothing on offer too, lending new meaning to the phrase, “Back to School” fashions.

Sears MarketplaceSears is121 years old, so we can’t attribute this to a mid-life crisis. Let’s just call it a brand identity crisis. Harder side, softer side, sumptuous side, and now stricter side. OK, it’s been tough times for Sears, and increased sales would be greatly appreciated by CEO Ed Lampert, who’s said he’s looking to “transform” the department store chain. But for that, he needs money, so they’re apparently beating the online landscape, trying on alternative lifestyles for the brand.

To be fair, these are all third-party vendors, but it is Sears’ website, and one has to wonder whether the brand – which just suffered a $279 million 1Q’13 loss – is also suffering from some sort of cognitive dissonance disorder. First offering Sears fashions where you don’t have to pay a lot, then shifting to luxury goods where you do have to pay a lot, and then offering fetish wear, where you’re going to pay a lot too, just in a different way!

Anyway, if you go to the Marketplace site, and search for Elegant Moments, product pictures come up. But if you click on one of the fetish items, here’s what comes up: “Yikes, We’re sorry, but that page is no longer available.” There’s a “Ask Sears,” where one of their “skilled agents will help you find what you’re looking for,” but apparently the more hard-core Elegant Moments offerings are no longer on offer no matter how much you beg! But on the site, Sears is “here to help you find just what you need,” so if you key in alternative brands like “eForCity 2pc Leather Harness Cupless” or “Allure Lingerie Leather Harness With Pouch,” it all comes up for you to buy. Some of the products even allow you to click and zoom, but remember, this is shopping, so not smut!

It was satirist, Tom Lehrer, who wrote, “Filth is in the mind of the beholder,” so no value judgments being made here. We champion people’s rights to live the lives they want and dress the way they want, but specializing in brand and engagement measures – and having identified that this is a category currently driven mostly by “Store Reputation” (and not “Range of Merchandise” as in decades past) – we have to say this seems a less-than-organic brand transformation, and we’re pretty sure we’re not the only one’s who’ll feel that way.

Only time will tell if this departure from the more traditional image will increase Sears’ brand engagement, customer base, and profitability. Who knows? Maybe the softer-porn side of Sears will finally do the trick.

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About Passikoff and Shea

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Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, is a sought-after speaker and global thought leader on engagement and loyalty. He has pioneered work in these areas, creating the Customer Loyalty Engagement Index and the Sports Fan Loyalty Index. In 2008, New York University’s communication school declared Dr. Passikoff “the most-quoted brand consultant in the United States.”

Amy Shea, EVP Global Director of Brand Keys’ Brand Development, has worked with brands for over 20 years, translating research-based insights into strategically effective marketing and communications. Her contribution was recognized with the David Ogilvy Excellence Award, with both the Grand Ogilvy and 1st in Category awarded for the research behind IBM’s ground-breaking integration campaign.Passikoff and Shea's marketing column Peeking at 21st Century Brands is syndicated to Blue MauMau by permission of Brand Keys.

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