Sears offers a variety of different brands as well as its own Kenmore vacuum cleaners

One evening Gene Steinhoff, a Sears Brand Central sales associate, was straightening up a vacuum cleaner display in the Livingston, N.J., Sears outlet when a stern-looking woman marched toward her and barked out a series of questions concerning deep cleaning products.

The woman said she was not interested in deep cleaning machines but in Scotchgard carpet protectors used in conjunction with the devices.

Steinhoff calmly explained how certain carpet protectors are more difficult to use than others and how some deep cleaning machines will actually remove Scotchgard applied to the rug. A discussion of the features of one machine ensued.

The once hostile customer was completely disarmed and walked out of the store a short time later content that she got the answer for which she had come. And she promised to return for the right deep cleaning machine.

Sears spokesman Perry Chlan said Steinhoff’s performance was a textbook example of the secret that has kept Sears the number-one floor care retailer in the country for many years. The chain insists on having knowledgable sales help armed with well-edited product assortments.

“You have to be competitive and have merchandise, but consumers don’t have to shop long to find a bargain,” Chlan said. “Our significant advantage is we have the trained sales associates who are there to assist customers.”

Both the store and Sears headquarters offer a variety of programs and methods to keep sales associates abreast of the latest products and sales techniques.

Sears headquarters provides ongoing available training via a special computer tutorial program that teaches sales associates general product information.

Training at the store level comes through manuals and meetings with department heads whenever necessary. Meetings to discuss new business occur almost every Saturday morning in many stores, and most allocate a minimum of two hours per week to sales-associate training.

On rarer occasions, such as when a special promotion is about to take place, sales associates will receive instruction from vendor trainers.

Steinhoff said the sales technique she used with the deep-cleaing customer that night was called “the counselor method” of salesmanship. It centers on qualifying customers according to their needs and narrowing down the store’s selection to the product best suited to that individual.

Harry Vellines, divisional merchandise manager of home appliances at Sears, said Sears’ merchandising strategy is to arm its sales associates with the broadest product assortment possible so the needs of the customer are met every time. A typical Sears outlet will carry in excess of 40 models of full-size vacs, wet/vacs, hand vacs and deep cleaning machines.

He said straight suction canister vacuums, which account for the largest section of the assortment, tend to appeal to customers who have hardwood floors, while models with power nozzles attract consumers who want to remove dirt buried deep in the carpet fibers. Typical retail prices for such products range from $59.99 to $399.99. How to Select the Best Vacuum Under 200

While Sears leads the canister business, it also sees big growth opportunities in uprights. Similar to canister vacs, its merchandising strategy in uprights is to offer a broad range of models, ranging from $59.99 to $399.99.

“Uprights are a major piece of the floor care business in the United States,” Vellines said, citing statistics that show uprights represent 70 percent of industry sales. “And we’re going to take care of that customer as well.”

Last fall, Sears carried attached-tool uprights in addition to more conventional models. The Brand Central department carries such names as Hoover and Eureka, which compete with comparable Proformance and Power Center models in Sears’ private-label Kenmore brand.

We’re not pushing any model over any other,” Vellines said. “Just like a car dealership sells different brands that consumers become attached to, we carry different brands like Hoover and Eureka.”

So far, Proformance models are said to be emerging as a strong seller because they filter out fine dust particles and emit only clean air.

Another area Sears is developing is deep cleaning machines. The chain currently carries models from Bissell and Regina in the $149 to $279 range.

In order to effectively merchandise the overall floor care assortment, displays are arranged in a step-up fashion so consumers can easily inspect the various product segments with the sales associate. For example, a consumer interested in straight suction canister vacs would be guided to one location where all those particular models would be arranged from lowest to highest-number of features. Prices generally climb accordingly.

“We display each floor care segment by section because a customer who wants a straight suction canister doesn’t need to be looking at everything else,” Vellines said. “It is confusing.” Vellines said customers know Sears has the right products through continual newspaper advertising, featuring sale prices on selected machines. Sears maintains a price-competitve posture, he said, and will even match prices on advertised items in local mass market promotions. If a mass merchant wants to take a Hoover vacuum cleaner to an incredibly low price, we’ll match it if we have it on sale

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