Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Kmart's Bedtime Story

Why can’t all Kmarts look like the two I visited last night?

The Astor Place store in New York City, conveniently located next to the most recent street-scene shooting of the “Sex and the City” movie, looked sharp. Even after a day of retailing, assortments looked fresh, and mostly full, as the press ascended to the third floor home furnishings departments where Kmart unveiled an expanded Martha Stewart Everyday line and a new house label, Abbey Hill, intended as a better-best traditionally elegant alternative to Martha’s more homespun good-better-best merchandise.

At Astor Place, a transition spot between the Greenwich Village East and West, Kmart showcased 500-thread count Martha Stewart sheet sets from $68.99 to $91.99; 400-thread count duvet sets for $80.99; and 5-star bath towels for $11.49. For the Abbey Hill line, top line sheet sets of 250-thread count retail for $22.99 to $57.99; towels sell from $4.99 to $14.99. To help customers feel the difference among the sheet offerings, swatches of different thread counts hang from gondola shelves. The merchandise, including bath accessories, is a winner. And as someone who already sleeps on some Martha Stewart sheets, I can vouch for their quality, at least in previous incarnations of the assortment.

Kmart has placed the new merchandise in all its stores nationwide at a time when Wal-Mart has retreated from a foray into top-tier home furnishings in many of its units. Perhaps Kmart believes it can keep its stores looking smart enough to validate the higher price points. No doubt, Kmart hopes to attract more well-heeled consumers to buy sheets and towels. Even as Kmart upgrades, the market keeps going higher and higher. Bed Bath & Beyond, among others, sells a 1,000-thread count sheet for more money than a full set retails for at Kmart.

Kmart’s challenge will be one it has faced for decades, namely, making the in-store experience complement the upscale merchandise it wants to sell. At Astor Place, despite the intense foot traffic of an urban location with access to the subway, Kmart was up to the challenge, at least last night. So on my way home, I decided to stop by the White Plains, N.Y., store. It was 8:30 p.m., and the store also looked fantastic. Nothing out of place. Gondolas fully stocked. Then I remembered—White Plains is the store where Eddie Lampert, chairman/CEO of Sears Holding Corp., parent company of Kmart, shops. If any store was going to be picture perfect, it was going to be White Plains.

Will the other roughly 1,400 Kmarts look as good? I hope so, or Martha’s and Abbey Hill’s bedroom textiles will be part of a retail nightmare.

—Murray Forseter

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