Last Call, Kmart Shoppers?

PHOTO: A customer enters a Sears store in Peru, Ill. in this June 23, 2011 file photo.
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I was raised in a solid, middle-class home. That means that at different stages of my life the Sears catalog and the Kmart blue light special were as familiar to me as our family's golden retriever, Lacey. My early consumer training manual was the Sears catalog. I would wear out the toy section of the book, gazing longingly at things I knew we couldn't afford. I would promise myself someday I would have everything I wanted like that tent that slept five or the 7-piece drum-set. (I must admit now that I'm an adult both do languish in my garage after getting very little use.)

Few things about our prolonged recession have been as jarring to me as the news that Kmart (along with Sears -- the companies merged in 2004), once the nation's leading discounter is in the ring on one knee very likely soon to be down for the count; battered by the economy and stronger opponents, powerful uber-discounter Walmart and its stylish discounter counterpart Target.

In a recent poll conducted by America's Research Group, 25 percent of respondents said they had shopped at a Target store in the past 30 days, 69 percent said they had been to a Walmart while only 5.5 percent had shopped in a Kmart. With 1,300 Kmart stores and 3,900 Sears stores in North America, Sears Holdings Corp. is a formidable retailer that still is the nation's largest provider of home services with more than 12 million service calls a year, many to fix one of its popular appliance lines. As a marketer, I have more than a passing interest in exploring the role image has played in the demise of Sears and Kmart.

Much has been written about the man at the top, billionaire investor Eddie Lampert, who created Sears holdings by merging the companies in late 2004. He is, by all accounts, a serial cost-cutter and by many accounts, difficult to work for and not willing to pay top-dollar for executive talent. Under Lambert the facilities have aged and staff has had low-moral. While Sears and Kmart slowed to a crawl losing market share in appliances and apparel, Home Depot, Lowes, Kohls,Walmart and Target have all seen gains.

From an advertising perspective, Kmart and Sears have lacked focus, strong branding, personality and excitement. Last holiday season Kmart tried a shift to a stronger focus on diversity. This year, Kmart has run a campaign with the tagline "Money can't buy style" and Sears has recently hire the hottest advertising agency on the planet McGarry Bowen (who won the Burger King business as well earlier this year). You get the sense the company can't figure out how to communicate with its customers in this odd time in our history. In this age of wide-reach and over-communication, affordable luxury is seemingly more appealing than cheap, but over-priced.

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