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Eyeing the flourishing furniture market, Sears is making a major commitment to its Homelife upscale furniture business.

In the first-ever national TV brand campaign for its 115 stores around the country, Homelife this weekend breaks 30- and 60-second spots themed "It's everything you need to bring your home to life," from Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago.

Responding to lagging apparel sales, major retailers like Sears, Roebuck & Co.; Carson Pirie Scott & Co.; and Dayton Hudson Corp. are following consumers' hearts and wallets to the promising home furnishings category, designing free standing stores to capture one of the few retail markets not already dominated by category killers.

"The Sports Authority already took footballs and running shoes out of department stores. Best Buy and Circuit City took away consumer electronics and appliances," said Brian Kardon, director of consultancy Braxton Associates, Boston. "And now we see one more category losing business to retailers like Ikea and Crate & Barrel. But there is no leader in the furniture category yet."

In recent years, a strong housing market and lackluster fashion designs have frayed apparel sales while creating new opportunities in home furnishings.

The Homelife campaign, kicking off in 29 spot markets, positions Sears as a midlevel retailer of furniture, somewhere between Heileg Meyers and Ethan Allen, said Carolyn Muci, marketing manager for Homelife.

Sears hopes to eschew its image as "Roseanne's" decorator with slightly higher quality and prices in its free standing furniture stores.

Homelife sells branded and unbranded furnishings costing roughly 10% more than traditional Sears furniture, displayed in room environments.

"We don't sell any more inexpensive sofas people would consider putting in their basements," Ms. Muci said.

Despite initial concerns that the Sears name might scare off style-conscious shoppers, consumer research showed customers liked the inclusion of Sears in the Homelife logo.

The trust and affordability inherent in the Sears moniker are important to customers spending hundreds of dollars on furniture, Ms. Muci said.

Like Sears, Homelife targets women ages 25 to 54. But pinpointing dual-income households is "a bit more important" to Homelife, she said.

Retail analyst N. Rick Nelson of Duff & Phelps, Chicago, sees Sears' real opportunity in the sale of private-label furniture, much like its apparel business. Homelife replicates this strategy with its Open House line of pine and cherry furnishings, made for Sears by Stanley Furniture Co. and Singer Furniture Co.

Other marketers are taking a slightly different tack.

Dayton Hudson will sell mainly branded furnishings in the two 100,000-square-foot Marshall Field's Home Stores opening in the Chicago area in the summer of 1996.

Carson's also will sell mostly name brands in the three 50,000-square-foot stores it will open in the Chicago area by yearend.

Overall, sales of household furniture rose 23% between 1992 and 1994 to $19.9 billion, according to the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, High Point, N.C. By the end of 1996, the market should grow another 10%, to $21.9 billion.

Sears is using the extra space in its main stores for higher-margin goods like women's accessories, apparel and cosmetics, said John Costello, senior exec VP-marketing. The expansion brings Sears' percentage of apparel space closer to that of its department store competitors.

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