Identity Crisis, Part 3: The Two Faces of Sears

In Judann Pollack’s AdAge article, “Dear Sears, It’s Time To Hang Up Your Toughskins”, she reminisces about Sears’ halcyon days in the 1970s and suggests that the brand lost its relevance when the “Softer Side of Sears” ad campaign began. (Although she says it began in 1983, it was really 1993.) The “softer side” is a play on “softlines”, which is retail-speak for clothes, accessories, and housewares. For Sears, that’s basically anything that’s not Craftsman or Kenmore. The campaign started in 1993 to help the brand reclaim its former fashion glory. It was a big success.

Let’s fast-forward a bit.

1998. According to a Sears’ press release, the “Softer Side of Sears” campaign has been so strong that the company decided to replace it with a similar campaign called “Take Another Look”.

1999. Five months after the aforementioned press release, the Chicago Tribune publishes an article called “Sears’ ‘Softer Side’ May Be Too Limp To Survive”. Evidently,  Sears’ marketing chief Mark Cohen told Wall Street analysts, “In 1998, it became apparent that our marketing programs were no longer producing acceptable results.”

2004. Sears announces a new ad campaign featuring Ty Pennington of the reality show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. Sears is also prominently featured on the show, which debuted the previous year. Pennington’s exclusive Sears brand, Ty Pennington Style, consists mainly of hardlines but it does include housewares, which is a component of softlines.

2008. The fight for softlines continues. I know this from all the clearance labels I print during my merchandising associate days at Sears NY. It’s quiet and monotonous work. At one point, I dream up a softlines ad campaign featuring a pre-Healthy Choice/Old Navy Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. Later I will realize that my campaign isn’t that different from “Softer Side”.

I know very little about what’s going on in the Hardlines departments. They have different management and training, which is understandable, but we don’t have storewide team meetings. It will be the same way when I’m at Sears NC.

A few weeks into the job, my manager has me focus on the Intimates department, putting lower and lower price tags on the same items sold at Kohl’s, Penney’s and Macy’s. Since it’s been a while since the Sears brand had any sort of sex appeal, it seems that the constant markdowns and unsold inventory are due to a lack of women wanting to buy their lingerie from Sears. I feel like I’ve found the best-kept secret in shopping.

2011. The Kardashians produce an exclusive clothing line for Sears. It will be unsuccessful. This surprises no one because no one believes that the same sisters who show off designer fashions on Instagram also happen to be Sears fans.

2011. Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard win the Interactive Award for Business at South by Southwest with their viewer-directed Internet reality show, “Screw*d“. Sears says that it’s an excellent example of how the company “continues to showcase its most important brands, like Craftsman, as leaders in innovation and product development while continuing to build lifelong relationships with customers through social media and integrated retail.” The interesting part has been italicized.

2013. Sears airs a brilliant TV commercial in which a young woman is at first reluctant to admit her stylish blouse came from Sears, but she ends up receiving so many compliments on it that she starts openly bragging about her Sears purchase. It’s a great spot because it includes self-deprecating humor while still making the brand look fashionable. And there’s truth in it; I really did find cute things at Sears when I worked there. The commercial, though, is not part of a larger campaign and it isn’t run often. I see it on TV exactly one time.

2017. Sears sells Craftsman to Stanley Black & Decker for about $900 million. It’s apparently a smart decision, but it’s also a sad one because Craftsman was the best thing Sears had going for it.

This raises the question of what went so wrong for Sears softlines. Officially, I can’t find a clear answer. My speculation is that “Softer Side” conceptually divided Sears into two different stores. After Softlines Sears lost its energy in 1998, the company neglected it. No more $200 million ad spends. No more creative campaigns. Meanwhile, Hardlines Sears had more inventive marketing and a stronger brand image. But they were never actually separated, so Hardlines had to carry Softlines and the burden brought them both down.

Personally, I stopped shopping at Sears from 1997 to 2007. That was from the time I outgrew the kids’ section until the time I first worked there. Sears wasn’t cool. It was the practical, boring grown-up store. Kids who grew up with “Softer Side” commercials, like I did, became adults who associated the brand with the campaign’s initial target: women like their mothers. The same women who once bought their bell-bottoms at Sears. Maybe that’s why the Softer Side stopped being cool.

Image credit: Raysonho/Wikimedia Commons.


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