When Sears' PR team began planning a $250,000 campaign - from February to May of 2001 - for the opening of its State Street store in the heart of Chicago's Loop business district, it knew the event called for more than the usual banners and balloons.Sears hadn't operated a store on State Street since 1983. At the time, its decision to close that facility was seen as an ominous omen signaling the decline of State Street as a significant retail district in the Windy City. Further snubbing the city, Sears hadn't even maintained its headquarters in Chicago's Sears Tower since 1995, when it moved to the suburbs.
Its return to State Street last year was being viewed skeptically by retail analysts who wondered if Sears could appeal to urban consumers.
State Street has been revived as a retailing Mecca in recent years, but a failure by Sears there could undo much of the progress, and become a major black eye for the area.
"The biggest challenge we faced was returning to State Street after an 18-year absence,
says Rebecca Hary, Sears' senior communications manager.
"We were under close watch to succeed in that market. There is so much emotional and historical significance in Sears returning to State Street."
Sears sought to use its State Street opening as an event that would not only bring customers to the new store, but would also strengthen overall customer perceptions about Sears. A study the retailer commissioned before the opening found Sears to have a weak image among consumers.
The State Street campaign was thus designed to increase Sears' overall brand strength, to bring customers to the new store, and to increase sales at other Chicago-area Sears stores.
At the new location, Sears knew it would be dealing with a much different clientele than at its suburban stores. Roughly 800,000 people live within five miles of the new outlet. But that population extends from tony yuppies flocking to new residential development in Chicago's center, to some of the city's poorest public housing projects on the fringes of the urban core. Sears found that 35% of those 800,000 potential customers are Hispanic, 30% African American, and 32% Caucasian.
Knowing that, Sears would try to reach all the diverse segments of the store's urban market. And it would seek to show that Sears wanted to be a good corporate citizen, becoming involved in community efforts in Chicago.
Sears announced in February that its new store would open May 23. In March, it teamed up with Chicago's popular mayor Richard Daley at a press conference to announce it would be bringing Urban Dream Capsule (UDC) to the new store. UDC, a group of Australian performance artists, would live in the windows of the new Sears for two weeks after the store opened.
B-roll of the group was provided at the press conference, and arts, theatre, entertainment, and travel publications were approached (as was NBC's Today show), with the group being used as the lead PR element in pitches. "We were able to use them as news hooks for the press,
Press kits included releases on the opening, fact sheets, information on UDC, information on the architectural and historical significance of the building Sears was redeveloping into its store, a store layout, and a company history.
Sears' PR team sought to maintain the media's interest in the months leading up to the opening with a series of other events. In early March, it unveiled "Sears on State Murals
- artwork by local artists on the wooden barriers surrounding the new store as it was under construction.
Local reporters were informed, as were minority outlets, as an African-American student artist was involved in the project.
In April, Sears offered broadcast and print media members "hard hat tours
of the new store as it was being built. Store manager Dave Johnson was made available for interviews as well.
In early May, right before the opening, Sears again worked with the city to announce a downtown neighborhood campaign by the new store, which pledged $500,000 to the area over the next two years. Singer Brian McKnight headlined a fundraiser that gathered another $1.3 million. Another May event was a cabbie day, when Chicago cab drivers were given free Krispy Kreme donuts when they drove through the unique drive-up area behind the new Sears store.
Opening day itself saw celebrity home-improvement guru Bob Vila, former boxer George Foreman, and blues great Buddy Guy on hand.
The campaign garnered more than 500 media placements, including 19 mentions for the new store in the Chicago Tribune, and 25 mentions in the Chicago Sun-Times. Over-all circulation reach totaled 115 million readers over a three-week period. USA Today wrote about UDC and Sears' return to State Street. The grand opening was covered by all of Chicago's broadcast news outlets, adding up to four hours of TV time. The Today show, CNN, and The Early Show all reported on the opening and/or UDC. Other coverage included Reuters, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
On opening day, the new store attracted 50,000 customers, and was ringing up sales at a rate of more than 1,000 an hour, exceeding expectations.
Efforts to generate additional business at other Sears stores were also successful. Sales at Chicago-area Sears outlets jumped 21.6% within three weeks of the grand opening.
A follow-up survey of consumer attitudes found impressions about the Sears brand had improved. Activities surrounding the opening raised awareness scores for Sears by 9% among target customers, 8% among moderate customers, and 17% among non-customers.
Sears is using its new State Street store as a backdrop for various events and ongoing PR efforts. "We always try to do different and unique things to captivate Chicago at that location,
Local TV crews now often use the store as a backdrop during such stories as what's selling on Valentine's Day, or to gauge the level of shopping activity in the Loop on the day after Thanksgiving.