Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Eddie Lampert: The Marriage From Hell

Inside a Sears store in the Cincinnati suburbs, Steve Sunderland, the vice president for store initiatives at Sears Holdings, is exuberant as he shows off his company’s latest experiment. With his oversize blue blazer and slightly nasal voice, Sunderland bears a passing resemblance to Steve Carell of The Office. Periodically, he interrupts our conversation to race over and hold a door open for a customer or to call out, “Have a great day, ladies!”

At this particular Sears store, Sunderland is point man for the latest test run by hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert, who is using the company as a petri dish to try out his ideas for the retail business. (Read more about Eddie Lampert.) Instead of the usual layout, which groups merchandise by type—clothing, toys, appliances—this two-level store is organized around rooms of the home, including a kitchen, kid’s bedroom, garage, and laundry room. The areas are set up, Sunderland says, “holistically.” Refrigerators and stoves are in the kitchen area, and washers and dryers are in the laundry zone.

The goal is to create a Cheers atmosphere, referring to the 1980s sitcom in which Boston barflies make up a surrogate family. Sunderland calls this “dwell.” Each area has its own pavilion, anchored by a computer kiosk called the Oracle, set up to search out Sears products. Sears has adapted the Willy Wonka, everything-is-edible approach to the mock-up rooms. Everything within them, including the paint on the walls, is for sale.

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