Direct Issue: Co-ordinating below-the-line work for Sears needs a pragmatic mind

For Iestyn Roberts, Sears’ direct marketing presents a valuable part of the total mix, Michele Martin says.

For Iestyn Roberts, Sears’ direct marketing presents a valuable

part of the total mix, Michele Martin says.

Sears could never be described as one of the great marketing-led

companies of our time. Last year, it spent less than pounds 250,000 on

advertising for all its national brands including Richards, Wallis, Shoe

Express and Adams. Spread of the flagship Selfridges store brought the

final tally to pounds 1.5 million (Register-MEAL).

Which is precisely why the group’s latest marketing initiative has

caused something of a flutter. Last year Sears Direct, an internal unit

dedicated to customer relationship marketing, launched. This year’s

budget should be more than pounds 1 million.

Sceptics say that the apparent move below-the-line is a final attempt by

Sears to come up with a marketing solution for broader business

problems. In January, the group posted a warning of a drop in profit

forecasts to between pounds 80 and pounds 85 million, after the group

made pounds 100 million last year.

Richard Hyman, an analyst at the retail analyst, Verdict, adds: ’Sears

could use more marketing, but the problems are bigger than most. Most of

its businesses lack clarity and consistency and marketing is not the


But Iestyn Roberts, the customer relationship marketing director who is

charged with proving that Sears Direct can be an important business

tool, is pragmatic.

He is keen not to overstate what the department can do. ’We don’t see

this as a panacea for all our ills. It is another weapon in our

marketing strategy and we need to make sure that we’ve mastered how to

use it,’ he says.

Nor is he hell bent on interfering with brand managers, centralising

budgets or swiping advertising spend. ’The company is actually trying to

spend more on advertising this year and we won’t take away that


Brands ultimately need to drive their own programmes,’ he explains.

Sears recently launched a campaign for Shoe Express through M&C Saatchi,

and one for Selfridges through Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Work for Wallis,

also through BBH, is expected this summer.

Roberts joined Sears last March from Bhs, where he was head of

relationship marketing. His job was to launch its first centralised

customer relationship management unit in order to stimulate all direct

marketing initiatives, credit card initiatives, credit card schemes and

loyalty programmes.

Then, in January, Sears’ Selfridges Selection catalogue business and its

ten staff came into the fold, triggering the unit’s relaunch as Sears

Direct. This has expanded to explore the possibility of launching

catalogues for other brands.

The division is charged with helping businesses enhance their existing

customer loyalty programmes, which vary from women’s fashion chains at

the top of the market to the shoe companies at the bottom. Businesses

are then asked to put in some money of their own. ’We expect them to

show some commitment,’ Roberts says.

In the next 12 months, the unit will focus on two or three of the

group’s more robust brands, and intends to broaden its scope to other

brands later.

Eventually, when it has done its educational job, the unit may disappear

altogether, with database management and analysis devolved back to the

credit card business. Meanwhile, creative thinking will be put back

entirely on individual marketing departments.

Recent relationship marketing programmes have included working with

Wallis and Richards to make the most of the stores’ already considerable

customer lists by facilitating brainstorming sessions among brand


Roberts and his colleagues dealt with issues such as how to improve

shopping evenings, sale previews and regular communications - often in

quite unorthodox ways. ’We’ve even poked around buying departments to

find things like old-fashioned shoot pictures and videos, which we then

find ways to use in customer communication. People love them,’ Roberts


Nor is the unit reluctant to get tough when it comes to strategy.

Roberts and his colleagues recommended that Sears scrapped its ’points

make prizes’ scheme, which gave store card-holders pounds 5 vouchers

with every pounds 100 spent.

The programme had apparently outlived its usefulness because it ’threw

money unnecessarily’ at often affluent customers who were not kept

’loyal’ as a result.

The unit is also masterminding an overhaul of the Selfridges Selection

catalogue, in an attempt to make it profitable. The book is being sold

to Littlewoods, pending approval from the Monopolies and Mergers


’We’d like other stores to have catalogues, because we’d like existing

customers to have a choice. But we can only do that once we’ve proved

Selfridges Selection can make a profit,’ Roberts says.

It is still early days for Sears Direct, but so far the signs are that

the unit’s existence is welcomed internally. Fiona Davis, the marketing

manager of Wallis, says that she has worked closely with Roberts on a

number of schemes and adds: ’Having support on relationship marketing is

extremely useful.’

The affable Roberts is pleased to hear the vote of confidence. ’So far,

I don’t think we’ve trodden on too many toes,’ he says. ’Our rationale

is to provide enthusiasm and get things off the ground - even if that

doesn’t last forever.’

The project is being seen as a test for other stores, most of whose

goods feature only in the Freeman’s catalogue.

and although Sears’ brands will remain in it for the next few years,

additional outlets would be desirable.

Partly funded by Sears’ credit card business and the Sears’ corporation,

its philosophy is to act as ’cornseed’, helping marketing departments

with ideas and providing some funding.


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