Cheers for Sears

About 30 years ago, my father worked for a knitwear manufacturer. One of the company’s clients was especially demanding. The company would refuse shipments for minute quality infractions, slight imperfections that other clients apparently ignored.

The fussy client: Sears, Roebuck & Co.

That’s one reason I think Sears’s acquisition of Lands’ End will be one of the few mega-mergers that work.

Sears’s hard goods — its Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools — have always been regarded as top quality. And when I was a kid, so was its apparel. No, the clothes were never fashion-forward — even as a child growing up in an unfashionable neighborhood in an unfashionable city, I recognized that. But it was nearly impossible to destroy a Sears garment. So for basics like jeans and pajamas and polo shirts and turtlenecks, the clothing offered first-rate quality at a reasonable price.

Sound like any cataloger we know?

It’s clear what Sears gets out of the acquisition: an apparel brand as strong and well regarded as its Kenmore and Craftsman brands. And as Sears chairman/CEO Alan Lacy points out in our cover story “Deal of the Century,” the typical Lands’ End customer is in many ways similar to Sears’s Kenmore and Craftsman buyers.

But what about Lands’ End? Sure, the cataloger finally achieves a brick-and-mortar presence in a hurry, and with it access to the 50% or so of the population that adamantly refuses to shop by mail. But some analysts fear that, rather than pulling Sears’s up to its level, Lands’ End will be dragged down to Sears’s level. Consumers will begin associating Lands’ End with low-end garb made exclusively from manmade, petroleum-based fabrics.

That’s a risk, of course. But I have faith that Sears will recognize that for the past several years, Lands’ End is a company that’s been doing most everything right. So Sears won’t tout slashed prices on Lands’ End product in cheesy circulars. It won’t begin mailing downscale offers to the more affluent names on Lands’ End’s house file. It won’t sell tires or George Foreman grills on the Lands’ End Website.

In short, I’m assuming that Sears won’t mess with how Lands’ End runs its business. I’m also assuming that it will keep the brands distinct enough that some Lands’ End customers — those who regard entering a Sears store on a par with crunching pork rinds while watching a truck-and-tractor pull — may not even realize that Sears owns Lands’ End…just as many people don’t realize that Eddie Bauer is owned by Spiegel.

And maybe, just maybe, the Lands’ End team will convince the brass at Sears to redesign the retailer’s logo — let’s face it, the typography is hideous. And while we’re at it, to bring back the Sears Wishbook in all its glory.

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