NEW YORK (AP) _ Sears, Roebuck and Co., which has successfully sold its tools and appliances on the Web, is counting on having the same magic with bedspreads and sweaters, thanks in part to expertise gained by its purchase of Lands' End Inc.
The company's venture into online sales of home furnishings and apparel, which officially launches Monday, may be considered late. But executives say tapping into the expertise of Lands' End _ which it acquired two years ago and is considered a leading innovator of online selling _ will enable Sears to jump ahead of the competition.
``We are going to leapfrog further than anybody else right now online,'' said Bill Bass, vice president and general manager of Sears' customer direct division. ``We're starting where Lands' End is and pushing it further.''
Sears.com has incorporated some of the same features that Lands' End pioneered on the Web, such as the ``virtual model,'' where customers can enter body measurements such as waist and bust size to get an idea of how the outfit will look. But there are other features not yet available on Landsend.com such as a zooming technology that focuses on fabric and texture of the merchandise. Sears.com customers can also switch colors for all product illustrations, not just on the virtual model.
And while Lands' End sells home furnishings online, it does not have a virtual decorator, something that Sears.com now has. That tool allows customers to click on such choices as bedding, floor finishes and paint to create a bedroom in cyberspace; a virtual kitchen will be added this fall. Other stores like The Home Depot Inc. have similar virtual decorators, but Sears' version is more sophisticated, allowing consumers to pick such details as paintings and lamps.
Industry analysts praised the site for innovation, but wonder whether a positive apparel experience on Sears.com could actually hurt the retailers' efforts to improve sluggish clothing sales at its 820 stores, which has dragged down the company's overall business. A favorable experience online could accentuate a not-so-great experience in the store, according to Carrie Johnson, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based Internet research company.
That inconsistency, says Johnson, is the company's ``strength and weakness.''
At the same, Johnson said that the online apparel presence ``will remind customers that Sears sells apparel ... If apparel takes off, the stores can learn about the right merchandise, and try to target that merchandise better.''
Sears has been struggling to figure out the right apparel merchandise to woo customers.
Bass believes that Sears' online presence in apparel can only help increase sales in the store. He noted that one of every four appliance buyers at the Sears store has done their research on Sears.com.
About 50 percent of Sears' apparel offerings and about 70 percent of its home furnishings merchandise will be available on Sears.com. Bass said the retailer focused on its best-selling items and brands. In addition, shoppers will also be able to buy Structure, a young men's clothing brand that Sears purchased a year ago. The site will also feature A-Line, a career clothing line offered through an exclusive alliance with the Jones Apparel Group Inc., which is in 450 stores this fall.
Almost all the Lands' End products will be offered on Sears.com except for monogrammed products.
Sears' move comes at a time of increasingly strong growth for online apparel, the second biggest category behind computers on the Web, and one that naysayers thought would never take off.
Online sales of apparel and accessories, excluding shoes and jewelry, are expected to reach $7.5 billion, from $6.2 billion last year, according to Jupiter Research, a New York-based Internet research company. By 2008, the number should hit $12 billion, accounting for 4.9 percent of all apparel sales.
There are no published numbers for apparel sales for individual companies. Bass declined to offer projections for Sears' online apparel and home furnishings sales, but noted that last year, overall sales for Sears.com reached $300 million, and business is so far up more than 40 percent this year.
Sears' venture into apparel follows Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s move this past summer to make another stab at selling clothing, after pulling out three years ago. Amazon.com launched an apparel store in late 2002.
Still, given fit concerns, selling apparel is a lot trickier than selling a chain saw or bedsheets. Chuck Davis, chief executive of BizRate.com, a comparison shopping search site, noted that 10 percent of apparel purchased online is returned, much higher than the online industry average of 4 percent. Still, stores struggled with a 25 percent return rate in apparel on land, he said.