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Retailers, stung by lackluster holiday sales, must polish their marketing skills if they want to thrive, experts warn.

A number of the nation's leading retail chains will report 1996 holiday sales later this week; generally they're expected to increase a modest 4%.

Already several major chains, including Nordstrom, J.C. Penney Co., CompUSA and Saks Fifth Avenue, have reported or warned Wall Street that December results will be below expectations.


"Retailers must vigorously market their names, their identities, their brands," said Walter Loeb, publisher of Loeb Retail Letter. "Retailers have to become better marketers."

He said that is the only way to stem the tide of consumer apathy and distinguish retail stores from their competitors.

Marketing "has to be done with a lot more finesse than putting in the paper that something is for sale," he said.

Another factor forcing the push to marketing is an overstored nation, with consumers possibly at a shopping saturation point.

"The issue today is a consumer can only buy so much," said John Konarski, VP for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "The only way retailers can grow is by shifting market share."


One of the most successful holidays was enjoyed by Sears, Roebuck & Co.

The "1996 holiday sales topped 1995 to produce the best holiday season in Sears' history," said John Costello, senior exec VP-marketing, adding that the strong holiday season was broad-based.

Sears not only plowed $40 million into seasonal marketing, but retooled its proven 1995 marketing strategy by conducting additional consumer research.

Among the changes was the addition of nine 15-second spots from Ogilvy & Mather, New York, featuring specific gift ideas.

Among the best-selling gifts this season at Sears was the Robo Grip Pliers, a tool that replaces extensive pliers sets and is priced at $19.95 to $49.95.

"We sold 50 per minute during the holiday sales period," said Mr. Costello.

Sears continues to beef up its marketing focus through the creation of a team of four managers to oversee the company's major brands.

David Egeland has been named director of brand marketing for DieHard, Andy Ginger for Craftsman, Glori D. Katz for Canyon River Blues/"Softer Side" and Brian M. Kelly for Kenmore.


There were other successful brand-building efforts this season. Cartier Inc. offered a free Tickle Me Elmo doll with a $1 million necklace purchase, which drew huge tourist crowds at its Fifth Avenue store. Private store events targeted to frequent customers were popular; they ranged from a china-signing event by Lord Wedgwood at Macy's West to a Nordstrom cosmetics event that offered free makeup consultations to a variety of fund=raisers in which a portion of proceeds were donated to charities.

Still, retailers need to consider changing products on a seasonal or trend basis, some experts said. Banana Republic, for example, this holiday launched a home furnishing line in select stores. Another Gap division, Old Navy Clothing Co., last year featured gardening equipment.

"The line between marketing and merchandising is a lot more blended," said Mr. Konarski. "The Gap is selling a lifestyle and they will adjust and follow their

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