Sears teams up with MTV, LL Cool J to appeal to teens

First came the decision to stock Skechers, a line of footwear teens favor. Then came the personalized avatar, the virtual identity Sears shoppers could accessorize online.

Now, the company that once offered in-store hearing aids and dentures is teaming up with MTV to produce a back-to-school movie while adding a line of street clothes and accessories designed by hip-hop artist LL Cool J.

After spending years trying to get shoppers to embrace its softer side, the ailing retailer is still known more for its hardware than handbags. So its latest strategy to stem slumping sales is trying to tap yet another new market: the young, hip and urban.

“While mom may decide what the acceptable place is to shop, the kids are deciding what clothes they want and what places have it,” said Richard Gerstein, Sears' chief marketing officer. “If we come out of our season with much more relevance with this group, and improving our sales and profitability with this group, we think it's a big win.”

Whether the initiatives can help Sears shed its stale image is up in the air. But what's certain is that the chain led by financier Edward Lampert desperately needs to reinvent itself if it's going to survive.

“It's a great place to buy a washing machine, but you wouldn't want to get your jeans there,” said Jayne Mountford, vice president of trend reporting for Stylesight, a global retail forecasting firm.

That's the sentiment Sears executives hope “The American Mall” movie and the LL Cool J gear, which will be available in mid-September, can change – particularly among the fickle and trend-conscious teen audience that's so far viewed the chain with caution.

“The American Mall,” produced by the team responsible for the tween-loved “High School Musical” series, is a massive cross-promotion between MTV and Sears.

Scenes for the 87-minute film were shot in a Utah Sears store. Characters wear Sears clothes, which shoppers can purchase. And the actors will appear in Sears advertisements and circulars. Meanwhile, Sears will sell the DVD and soundtrack in stores, while promoting the film and getting commercial time when the movie airs on MTV on Aug. 11.

But some industry observers said they don't believe Sears has the credibility to compete in the increasingly crowded teen market. Nor are they sure whether this latest effort will yield more success than previous initiatives aimed at bringing back shoppers.

Sears earnings dropped 44 percent, to $826 million, during the most recent fiscal year. And in the first quarter of 2008, Sears lost $56 million – its largest quarterly loss since merging with Kmart in 2005 – and issued a dour sales forecast for the rest of the year.

“They need to get younger customers in their stores,” said Michael Stone, CEO and president of brand licensing agency The Beanstalk Group. “Teenagers have enough trouble walking in Wal-Mart and buying clothes and now they have to walk into Sears and walk through the washing machine and dryer section of the stores? It's going to be very hard.”