Sears Seeks Right Tone for the Times Without the Deep Discounting

Kidvantage and Layaway Programs Differentiate Retailer to Lure Shoppers

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NEW YORK ( -- Can't afford that flat-screen TV today? Put it on layaway and pick it up next week. Buying the cheapest clothes you can find, because your kids destroy them in a month? Shop at Sears, and they'll be replaced free.

'All clothes should be play clothes. That's our fashion statement,' a voice-over in an ad for Kidvantage says.
'All clothes should be play clothes. That's our fashion statement,' a voice-over in an ad for Kidvantage says.
Sturdy old Sears might seem a bit tone deaf when it comes to fashion, but when it comes to recession, it's speaking a language consumers understand. First the retailer brought back layaway, a forgotten concept that has gained new relevance as consumers lose jobs and their home prices decline. Now, it's launching its first advertising behind Kidvantage, a little-known program that pledges to replace any clothing that wears out before a child outgrows it.

The beauty of both is that Sears is addressing consumer concerns without lowering prices or offering deep discounts -- and it's eliminating barriers to shopping and differentiating itself from rivals at the same time.

To be sure, the retailer isn't completely resonating with its target -- domestic same-store sales fell 11% during the fourth quarter and 9.5% for the full year and Sears struck a discordant note with a contest called "Busted Moms," which offers a $2,500 makeover package to the mom willing to share, essentially, the biggest sob story.

But it's on the right track with Kidvantage, beginning with a push that kicks off in the week leading up to Easter via "Keep Away," a new spot from Y&R, Chicago. It's part of the retailer's overall spring marketing push, which sports the tagline "Sears. Life. Well spent." The commercial, which shows kids running around in a park, has a strong value message, touting Dockers pants for $14.99. But it's the reference to Kidvantage that is sure to catch the attention of cost-conscious moms. "All clothes should be play clothes. That's our fashion statement," a voice-over says. "With Sears' Kidvantage guarantee, whatever they're wearing won't wear out."

Ad Age explores what marketers, media and agencies are doing to survive and even thrive in the downturn.

Less clothes
The program, which also doles out 15%-off coupons for every $100 spent, will be promoted in all of Sears' seasonal campaigns. Executives say the move is timely, as consumers shift away from disposable fashion and are, generally, trying to cut back on apparel expenditures.

"We've already put a stake in the ground when it comes to offering a wide assortment of great brand names that are affordable," said Craig Israel, senior VP-president of Sears Apparel. "No matter how reasonably priced an item is, though, it has to stand up to the rigors of active kids or there's no cost savings for parents. It's a program we see resonating more and more with our customers during these difficult economic times."

The guarantee covers normal wear and tear -- jeans ripped during a game of soccer, for example -- but doesn't cover grass stains. It seems rife for abuse, but Mr. Hamblen downplayed any suggestion that customers would take advantage of the program or that it could ultimately become a losing proposition.

"We have done the financial analysis on it, and it is a profitable program for us," he said. "It has high-concept appeal. The people that are in it love it. They have peace of mind knowing they're getting great value and are protected. It's a win-win."

Recession advertising do's and don'ts

Hyundai (and now GM andFord) and Sears have moved beyond traditional marketing messages and instead eliminated key barriers to purchasing with their Assurance and Kidvantage programs, respectively.

GM's retail-oriented messages have done little to move the needle, while Miller High Life's branding message resulted in increased sales pre- and post- Super Bowl.

Americans are a bit touchy these days. Case in point: Gatorade rubbed some the wrong way with a G2 commercial that juxtaposes Kevin Garnett, multimillionaire NBA player, and Kevin Garnett, average joe who just got a pink slip.

Value messages have become a dime a dozen. Better to show value, as Xbox has done by adding Netflix and lowering prices, than to just talk about value, as Stein Mart does in its new campaign.

Why so serious? With the economy in a shambles, consumers are looking for a good laugh, and JetBlue's "The CEO's Guide to Jetting" and Boost Mobile's "Unwronged" campaign deliver.

Tone-deaf ads

The recession is all about striking the right note in your marketing, but some marketers are way off the mark. Here are three that caught our attention.

CiCi's Pizza
The restaurant chain's stimulus package involves dropping specially marked pennies, which can be redeemed for free drinks and meals, around its stores. The promotion is meant to celebrate "penny picker uppers." Unfortunately, it also appears to encourage down-on-their-luck consumers to insultingly grovel for freebies.

Gatorade G2 ad
The spot starred basketball star Kevin Garnett with everyman Kevin Crowe in its effort to show athletes of all stripes overcoming adversity through sport. It rubbed some the wrong way, however, seeing as it showcased a multimillionaire alongside a guy who had been laid off and couldn't pay his mortgage.

Sears Busted Moms
"Has the economy left you feeling busted?" Sears asks, inviting moms to share how the economy is affecting them for a chance to win a "Mommy Makeover." It seems no one told Sears that busted is slang for really, really ugly. That, and deigning your customers' sob stories not depressing enough to win isn't exactly great customer relations.

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