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Published: Thursday, 6/19/2008

Sears in search of its hip-hop side

Members of the cast of The American Mall gather outside a Sears in Provo, Utah, in which several scenes were shot. Members of the cast of The American Mall gather outside a Sears in Provo, Utah, in which several scenes were shot.

CHICAGO - 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.

"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, chief marketing officer for the Sears unit of Sears Holdings Corp. "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, experts say, 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.

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

Scenes were shot in a Utah Sears store. Characters wear Sears clothes that shoppers can purchase. The actors will appear in Sears ads and circulars. Sears will sell the DVD and soundtrack and will get commercial time when the movie is shown on MTV on Aug. 11.

Neither Sears nor MTV executives would disclose its investment in the project.

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 ones aimed at bringing back shoppers.

During the most recent fiscal year, the company's earnings dropped 44 percent to $826 million. And during the first quarter of 2008, Sears lost $56 million - its largest quarterly loss since Mr. Lampert merged it with Kmart under the Sears Holdings umbrella.

Sears officials acknowledge the challenges and hope they can be overcome. "When you talk about Sears it's off people's radar. We haven't really been speaking to them," Mr. Gerstein said. "I think that this partnerships delivers to us credibility."

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