For the far-flung Sears empire, the Washington area always has been a strong market, with its high-income, free-spending and diverse population. In many other markets, Sears is used to being the only 800-pound gorilla; in Washington, the retail jungle is full of them.

"It is a very strong market for us, and the demographics are ideal," said Roy Templet, Sears's eastern division regional manager who is in charge of all stores from New York City to North Carolina, including the Washington area's 15 locations. "But it is also more competitive, and in the larger metro areas, we don't enjoy the same dominance of market."

According to Templet, big sellers for Sears here include automobile goods, women's and children's apparel, and tools. But the stores face intense competition from the huge amount of specialty operations, ranging from Hechinger to the Limited.

Since keeping current is so important, Sears's sluggishness can hurt. "We redid the upstairs of our Alexandria store two years ago and then we did the downstairs a year later. By the time that was done, the upstairs was obsolete," Templet said. "You have to continue changing here, and that makes it more challenging."

And necessary. According to a recent poll of 2,000 area women by Massachusetts-based Babson College, Sears had a 1.9 percent market share -- a low figure, considering the large number of stores it has here, the poll said. The retailer scored high on catalogues, conservative fashions, speed, price and value, but was weak on merchandise assortment, service and fashion.

Templet said Sears has a much higher market share in Washington than the poll indicated and thinks it will get bigger as Sears continues to upgrade and improve service. He also said the tough economy might also help. "With a more moderate economy than in the 1980s and a consumer shopping more carefully, we think we have a lot of quality product lines that have a reputation for value," Templet said. "Customers will respond to that."

Considering the problems top Sears management is facing nationwide, Templet is confident. "Like they say, adversity is the mother of invention, and when all the changes are made and begin to work, it will be a dramatically different company than ever before," Templet said. "It's going to take a lot of work to get into position, but when we do, I think we can blow out the doors."