Retailers face the music for back-to-school rally

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Some of the nation's retailers are relying on upbeat ad tunes as they face the music this fall for what is shaping up to be one of the industry's biggest marketing upheavals.

Industry leaders are facing a late start to the all-important back-to-school season as chains, from discount stores to luxury goods emporiums, shift CEOs, chief marketing officers, agencies, ad campaigns or direction.

While retailers generally have their marketing plans well in place before the Fourth of July, this year three of the top chains are seeking to replace or have just replaced their chief executives.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. is looking for a replacement for Chairman-CEO Arthur Martinez. Mr. Martinez brought the company back with a "Softer side" campaign, but the retailer has been having trouble on Wall Street due to low projections for profitable apparel sales. Kmart Corp. in May named former CVS executive Charles C. Conaway its chairman-CEO, succeeding Floyd Hall. And J.C. Penney Co. late last month hired Allen Questrom, former chairman-CEO of Federated Department Stores and subsequently Barneys New York, as its new CEO.

Moreover, some half dozen chains are working with new agencies or are in the midst of reviews. Penney's will soon break its first campaign from new agency DDB Worldwide, Dallas and Chicago; Kmart is in the final throes of a review for its $100 million account; and catalog retailer L.L. Bean Inc., parting with Mullen, Wenham, Mass., has tossed its $15 million account in review.


Such upheaval can have longer term reverberations. Although Eddie Bauer Inc. hired the agency now called Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, San Francisco, over a year ago, it will break its first major broadcast effort from that shop this fall.

Even stores on a solid economic footing are changing their marketing tunes, with Kohl's Corp. dropping J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, and likely the "That's more like it" line, after four years. The estimated $90 million to $100 million broadcast account went to McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York.

Although traditional department stores have been troubled for a long time, such hot retail properties as fashion label Tommy Hilfiger and specialty chain Abercrombie & Fitch also appear to be cooling. "Tommy isn't what he used to be," said Jack Sansolo, exec VP-global brand direction at Spiegel Inc.'s Eddie Bauer. "Even Abercrombie isn't what it was."

Worse yet, Kurt Barnard, president of Kurt Barnard's Retail Trend Report, said consumers are in "a downward retail phase," while other experts maintain teen tastes are moving toward individuality and away from mass looks.

"Young consumers are buying style rather than brand," said Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a consultancy focusing on youth trends.

To recapture the attention of those youths, retailers such as The Gap and Sears are turning to music for marketing magic.

The Gap, touching on the popularity of boy and girl bands, has produced two spots featuring young singers performing updated versions of the 1960s Kinks classic, "You Really Got Me." The spots, which continue an evolution away from the Gap's trademark white background, include a pullback shot showing the camera crews around the band's stage.

For the first time, the spots specify, on a TV monitor on the set, the names of specific products, inline pants for boys and stretch cord flares for girls. The ads were handled in-house.


For Gap's Old Navy division, the Jackson Five's "ABC" provides the background music for spokeswoman Carrie Donovan to pitch a deal: Buy six T-shirts, get the seventh free. Ads are done in-house.

Gap this year also will enter the back-to-school fray with uniform tops and bottoms, going head-to-head with Kmart and department stores.

For the second year in a row, Sears is centering its back-to-school ad campaign around a concert tour. The effort, breaking Aug. 6 and running through October, is executed jointly with Levi Strauss & Co. and backs Christina Aguilera's summer tour. TV spots, from Y&R Advertising, Chicago, feature a TV monitor with a video of the singer created earlier, a move intended to prevent Ms. Aguilera from breaking the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television & Radio Artists' strike.

Along with TV, promotions, an Hispanic marketing effort and three back-to-school newspaper inserts, Sears has established a Christina microsite ( Christina Boutiques have been set up in 650 full-line stores with Christina CDs, T-shirts, school supplies and accessories.

In addition to music, retailers are adding spice to their fall ad campaigns with hints of voyeurism. In a new spot for Kmart's Route 66 private-label jeans titled "Chinese Fashion Show," two cars full of kids pull up to a traffic light in the middle of a deserted section of highway. The kids jump out, and -- in a move similar to the Chinese fire drill game -- start trading clothes. Shot with a hand-held camera, it shows girls hiding behind fenders as they change, with views of them in the cars' chrome and side-view mirrors. Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, handled.

Levi Strauss' new ad campaign, tagged "Make them your own" from TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco, also employs a voyeurism element in its first spot, which appears to be shot from a dressing room security camera as models try on jeans.

The marketer has also put a little more emphasis on its female customers, particularly for its Slates and Dockers brands. In one execution for Dockers, a woman is standing on her head with the headline: "Wouldn't it be nice if casual Fridays were about more than just the pants?" The Dockers effort breaks in September women's magazines such as In Style, O, the Oprah Magazine and Vogue. FCB Worldwide, San Francisco, handled.


Back-to-school selling, of course, goes well beyond clothing, books and school supplies. Retailers such as Linens 'n Things are hoping to tap the large number of echo boomers, children born to the baby boom generation, about to leave college and set up their first apartments or to decorate and organize dorm rooms.

"Back-to-school is becoming more and more important every year," said Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, New York, agency for Linens 'n Things. The retailer is running a national cable effort, along with local efforts, in areas including New York, Chicago and Dallas.

Also planning a fall effort is Pier 1 Imports, with its first ad campaign from new shop Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich. (see related story, Page 25).

Surprisingly, the dot-coms, which have been active in promoting holidays such as Mother's Day, have been relatively quiet on the back-to-school front. plans a fall ad effort using animation from FCB Worldwide, San Francisco, that will show all the items besides books available on the Web site.

Kmart's has established a back-to-school section on its site featuring products ranging from Pokemon T-shirts for less than $10 to a $39.99 Mr. Coffee machine. The site, however, will promote the section only through the regular Kmart weekly circular.

Web portals also are treading lightly on back-to-school. Instead, John Yost, president of Yahoo! agency Black Rocket, San Francisco, said he expects portals will "heavy up" on advertising in time for the holiday season.

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