Sears opening 3 stores in Md.

`new format' set

Unveilings today bring its first Harford department store

`Going back to its roots'

March 21, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Sears, Roebuck and Co. is opening three department stores in Maryland today in a move that boosts its profile and brings its first major store into Harford County.

The retailer shut older, smaller stores in Annapolis and Hagerstown to move into newer, larger and more visible locations.

The three new stores - at Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis, Harford Mall in Bel Air and Valley Mall in Hagerstown - are among 18 leases that Sears took over last year from the defunct Montgomery Ward chain.

Sears will open 15 stores and remodel 50 more nationwide this year, according to a company spokeswoman. Eight of the new stores are in markets that Sears didn't serve, and the rest are relocations within the same market.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, plans to open more than 200 stores this year. Target Corp. plans to open about 110.

"None of the traditional department stores have been on a real aggressive expansion mode, because the category has seen its sales stay flat over the past 10 years" as mass discounters captured more market share, said Marie Driscoll, an equity analyst for Argus Research in New York. Department store chain J.C. Penney Corp. plans to open three stores this year.

Today's store openings are part of a three-year plan announced last fall by Sears that is designed to increase operating income by 50 percent to more than $3 billion.

Since fall, the company has cut 4,900 salaried employees from its payroll. It is counting on higher sales that it says will come from improvements in the customer's shopping experience, including better merchandise offerings and easier checkout. Sears also plans to introduce its own brand of casual clothing.

Sears is "trying to be better at fashion merchandising to respond to challenges from Kohl's and Target," said Walter F. Loeb, retail analyst with New York-based Loeb Associates.

Basics emphasized

The company is also "going back to its roots" and emphasizing its automotive, tool and appliance departments in hopes of getting those customers to spend money in other departments, Loeb said.

"All of these stores are new formats and easier to shop for the customer," said Maria Purcell, Sears' district general manager. "In Annapolis, the facility is substantially larger than the old facility" at nearby Parole Plaza. "And the mall there is in an absolutely terrific location in the Annapolis market."

Sears shifted employees from its old stores in Annapolis and Hagerstown. The company hired about 100 people, increasing its work force to 200 in the 140,000-square-foot Annapolis store. It added about 40 employees to its 129,000-square-foot store in Hagerstown, which will have 175 employees.

Moved several miles

Sears closed its Hagerstown store in the Long Meadow Shopping Center and moved several miles to be closer to a greater concentration of retailers along the Interstate 81 corridor, Purcell said.

The owners of the stores that Sears left in Hagerstown and Annapolis did not return phone calls, but there are plans to demolish and rebuild Parole Plaza in Annapolis.

Sears jumped into a Harford County market that had long been the domain of now-defunct Wards. Sears closed a hardware store at Bel Air Plaza last year, Purcell said. The 131,000-square-foot Harford Mall store will have 160 employees.

"Wards was at [Harford Mall] since the opening of the mall in 1972," said F. Patrick Hughes, president and chief executive of Mid-Atlantic Realty Trust, which owns the mall. "It was a very desirable location because even in the worst of times, it was a very good store for Wards."

At the Annapolis store yesterday, employees hung signs, polished washing machines and assembled products for display as Frank Morrow, the store's general manager, cruised the aisles with a two-way radio in hand.

More products

In an attempt to compete with Home Depot Inc. and other tool-selling home improvement outlets, Sears is unveiling Tool Territory, a format it started last fall featuring experienced sales people and expanded product selection, Morrow said. More than 45 hand-held drills of various brands lined one area of the department in the Annapolis store.

Morrow said Sears spent about $6 million on renovations at the new, larger store. He expects it to do two to three times more business than the Parole Plaza store.

17-store district

"We fully expect this to be the flagship store for the Baltimore district," which comprises 17 stores and includes the Hagerstown and Bel Air locations, Morrow said. He said the store is "expected to be the No. 1 store" in sales volume in the district.

The company will also open Sears Auto Centers in Annapolis and Hagerstown, but not in Harford Mall. Grand opening events will be held at all three stores Saturday.

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