Still, the Internet, and a number of other sea changes in consumer shopping behavior, have resulted in turmoil among the most powerful U.S. retailers, with a number of them shifting personnel at their top marketing posts, changing marketing strategies, changing advertising agencies or moving creative out of house.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. put Mark A. Cohen, who headed up some merchandising units, into the top marketing executive's slot at the beginning of the year. Within six months, Mr. Cohen had ditched the "Softer Side" campaign in favor of focusing on store sale events and heralding the company's traditional "guarantee" theme. A few weeks later, the retailer's lackluster performance resulted in a management overhaul, among them the addition to Mr. Cohen's duties the job of president of soft lines.
At department store rival J.C. Penney Co., longtime marketing chief Gale Duff-Bloom was promoted from president of marketing and company communications to president of company communications and corporate image, turning the marketing duties over to Stephen Farley, formerly a Payless Shoesource senior VP-marketing, who became Penney's senior VP-chief marketing officer.
Circuit City brought in agency veteran Jeffrey Palmer to head up marketing.
One of his first tasks on the job was to bring in a new advertising agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif. The goal was to move the company away from the category's low price wars and to build a presence in the emerging online battle.
"The complexion of competition and lifestyle and demographics has changed," says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report. "Many of the people departing were imbued with concepts encrusted a decade or two ago that have now ceased to be effective."
Among the sea changes taking place in the industry, says Mr. Barnard, is a new attitude among consumers.
"Today, everybody competes with everybody else. And to muddy the waters further, we now have the Internet," he says. "Prices are under strong pressure, loyalties are being tested and often easily abandoned."
Even The Gap, for example, which also switched marketing chiefs in the last year, has come out of the closet in acknowledging cannibalization between its mid-priced Gap stores and its Old Navy discount division. For the first time, the two stores led a major selling season, in this case the back to school season, with the same product, vests. In the past, the stores avoided head-to-head combat.
Ellis Verdi, president, DeVito/Verdi, New York, agency for Office Depot, says the conventional wisdom among 34th Street merchants to explain the success of Old Navy or Target is that when the economy is good, as it has been in recent years, people buy at Gap and other moderate chains because they don't need to display status. But when times are bad, their logic continues, people look to higher priced brands "as a statement of wealth as opposed to actual wealth," he says.
Another piece of the puzzle new power players will be asked to tackle is how to parlay their on-land assets into online assets. Last year, toy retailers were burned by the holiday success of online e-commerce pure play eToys. Retailers in all categories noticed -- Wal-Mart Stores and Sears among them -- and raced this fall to expand their Web offerings.
Target, for example, says it's not only adding a significant toy selection, but it will spare customers the hassle of shipping back merchandise purchased online and will take back items at any of its 881 stores.
The new retail power stars of the new millennium, more than ever, will be forced to meet a litmus test which does not focus on any specific marketing communication, or what a company's total ad bill amounts to in any given year, notes Harry Barnard, senior partner and chief marketing officer for Colton Bernard, a strategies consultancy. More than ever before, he says, "Power