Hoffman Estates, Ill. - Early in her tenure as president of home electronics for Sears Holdings, Karen Austin was shocked to learn that more than 20 percent of consumers were unaware that Sears carried the category.
Now one year into her new job, the company's former chief information officer has spent considerable time, effort and resources to remedy that.
Austin is taking a multi-pronged approach at updating Sears' CE image and enhancing its consumer benefit. Changes include a cutting-edge technology assortment and impending department redesign, coupled with a fresh marketing campaign and new online and m-commerce initiatives.
The overhaul began last March with a new CE leadership team, and continued with comprehensive training for sales associates in the fall. It was the first extensive instruction for staffers in four years, Austin told TWICE, and was focused on selling "a connected family solution, so that customers don't go to RadioShack for an HDMI cable after purchasing the TV from us."
Elsewhere in stores, TV walls and camera bars were upgraded, while another major reset is in the offing to support a significant commitment to 3D- and IPTV, Austin said.
To tout the assortment and assisted sales floor, Austin launched a humorous "Sears Blue Electronics Crew" advertising campaign featuring Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, and is looking to extend the blue crew's reach into homes by leveraging Sears' home services arm, which visits some 14 million households each year.
"It's a great opportunity," she said of the company's in-home operations.
To further support her mission statement of "educating, engaging and exciting customers," Austin called upon her experience launching Sears' e-commerce site to create a more robust multichannel offering. "Seventy-five percent of shoppers research online first," she said, "so we created new tools, new sites, and are investing heavily in increasing our e-commerce assortment."
Initiatives include the recently launched TvMatchmaker.com and CameraMatchMaker.com, which were designed to help simplify the buying experience by asking shoppers compatibility questions about their homes, viewing habits and the types of pictures they shoot.
Other new sites include the company's MySears and MyKmart Community pages, which join Facebook and Twitter as places where customers can commune in cyberspace. For its efforts, Sears was ranked among the top seven retailers and top 100 companies with advanced social-networking programs, while both Sears.com and Kmart.com were among the top 10 most-visited sites during the holidays, Austin said.
The company was also out front in m-commerce with the creation of its Sears2go.com mobile site and iPhone app, which has a special affinity with CE enthusiasts and early adapters, she noted.
Sears' sister chain Kmart has also enjoyed an assortment upgrade, although sales support and educational tools are less critical for the discounter. "Kmart is further behind on the technology curve," said Austin, who also served as the chain's interim chief marketing officer. "Innovations will be understood by the time they reach a mass audience."
Austin said she is getting support for her game plan from senior management under chairman Eddie Lampert and interim CEO W. Bruce Johnson, which is willing to make the investments in marketing and infrastructure when presented with a compelling case.
"Awareness is crucial for Sears' electronics business," she said, and as a result of the initiatives, "We've been able to move the needle significantly."