New Sears line adds agitation to washer wars

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Sears, Roebuck & Co. is putting a new spin on the appliance wars with a campaign backing a high-end washing machine -- an agitatorless, $1,099 model promising to carefully wash everything from cashmere sweaters to rugs.

TV spots for the Kenmore Elite Calypso washer, tagged "Wash out your mind," break Oct. 2 and will run for a month on cable, broadcast and syndicated programming. The campaign also includes direct-response TV and Internet ads. Print runs in October issues of epicurean, home fashion and lifestyle publications, and will run through yearend. A second round is planned for spring. Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, is the agency.

The new machine, manufactured by Whirlpool Corp., works by having water and soap cascade over the clothing in a manner similar to a shower. Ads promise the washer saves both water and energy, reduces ironing and drying time, and is "better than you ever thought possible." It urges those not thinking of a new machine to "think again."

LEVERAGING SEARS' NAME

Spending on the effort was undisclosed, but David Selby, senior VP-retail marketing, pegged it as one of the biggest appliance launches in the company's history. "We're going to leverage our unique strengths in this business," he said, among them Sears' credit and financing, delivery and installation and service for home appliances.

Sears, however, whose Craftsman tool brand has been challenged by the tool section at Home Depot, now faces competition on the appliance front from home improvement chain Lowe's Cos. as well as Wal-Mart Stores. Wal-Mart announced in August its intention to sell major home appliances in an arrangement with General Electric Co.

Currently, Sears accounts for almost half the estimated $11 billion to $17 billion annual U.S. appliance business. "We're going to fight this like crazy," Mr. Selby said. He indicated Sears and the Kenmore brand would harp on innovation to battle the newcomers. "You are going to see innovation underscored like never before," he said.

TOO MANY OUTLETS

Some retailers, however, are pulling away from the appliance battle. W. Alan McCollugh, president-CEO at Circuit City Stores, said he decided this summer to exit the business because appliances take up too much selling space from more profitable consumer electronic and entertainment items. He also said profit margins on appliances are eroding, and appliance manufacturers are not only adding many line extensions but are selling them at too many outlets.

Mr. McCollugh said he came to that conclusion when he walked down a street in the company's hometown of Richmond, Va., and saw appliances for sale out on the sidewalk in front of a Home Depot. "If they're selling it on concrete and showing them on the street, I assume it's going to be a very promotional [product category]."

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