CHICAGO -- Every consumer knows the moment, and probably dreads it: Something is broken, someone has to fix it and somehow it has to be paid for. But who's the someone, and what's it going to cost?

Sears, Roebuck and Co. is proposing to answer those questions in advance by offering to fix anything in a customer's house, regardless of manufacturer or seller, for one annual fee.

Under the plan -- one of several being tested and sold by telephone in Chicago, Minneapolis and other markets, although not in the Washington area -- repair coverage for everything inside and outside the house costs $598 for a year.

This "super service contract" is one of several ways in which the retailer is seeking to broaden what analysts say is a profitable extended-warranty business.

In the last year, Sears has been testing a number of potential new profit-making concepts as part of the restructuring of its corporate merchandising strategy.

"The company believes that providing these service agreements encourages store loyalty," said Richard Nelson, a retail analyst at Duff & Phelps Inc. in Chicago.

For years, shopping at Sears meant that if you bought a Sears brand product and it broke, you could take it back and have it fixed.

Now, however, it's offering to fix things that break, regardless of brand, as a growing number of retailers offer special service contracts to attract customers.

Sears officials were reluctant to discuss details of the new plan, saying that the project was launched a few weeks ago and is in the test stages.

"This service is being offered on a very limited basis," said a Sears spokesman. "Chicago is one of a handful of markets where this is being tested."

The contract is being sold by phone offers to customers known to own a Sears appliance, she said. Sears, like most other major retailers, keeps information on file from most major purchases.

The prototype repair service is being offered on "anything you own, from air conditioners to water filtration systems," the spokesman said. Different service packages covering different items are offered at varying prices, she said.

As part of its new merchandising strategy, the nation's largest retailer has been selling more and more national brand name goods.

The program thus is basically an extension of the repair and warranty service Sears has offered for years on its products, such as Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools and Diehard batteries.

Still, the increase reflects a changing attitude in the retail industry. A few years ago, there was widespread debate among retailers about the need for such extended service contracts.

Polk Bros. Inc., the Melrose Park, Ill.-based appliance and consumer electronics retailer, is one firm that has changed its opinion.

"For years we didn't offer any kind of service contracts. We didn't think they were necessary," said Michael Crane, company president. Crane now sees them as "very vital," because as the number of local repair outlets decreases, consumers are more and more at the mercy of manufacturers' service companies.

At Chicago-based Montgomery Ward & Co., the nation's ninth-largest retailer, repair service also is being offered on more name-brand merchandise. Like Sears, Ward's has increased its merchandise mix to include more national name brands.

"We recently opened a new segment called Doctronics, where customers can bring things to be fixed, whether they bought them at Ward's or not," said Richard Bergel, Ward's president of store operations.

But this foray into widespread national-brand product repair is more a headache, than direct competition, for small repair shops.

"There's plenty of room for service companies, but people like Sears can do so much more advertising," said Ralph Lindblom, president of the family-owned Advanced Appliance, a Franklin Park-based appliance and service dealer that opened in 1956. "I think the service {at the larger stores} leaves something to be desired," Lindblom said.

Though company officials would not release the details of the new service, a Sears employee familiar with it said the project is designed to offer several plans.

Plan A covers repairs of washers, dryers, air conditioners, microwaves and other kitchen products and electronic appliances such as stereos, for $299 a year.

A second plan, covering Kenmore and other Sears-brand products such as bicycles, lawn and bench-top tools and outdoor gas grills, is available for $299.

And a third plan covers "everything, both inside and outside the house," regardless of brand name for $598 a year.

In Minnesota, the retailer faces competition from what might seem an unlikely source: utility companies.

Minnegasco Inc., the gas company serving the Minneapolis and St. Paul area, and Northern States Power Co., the area's major electric utility, offer customers similar services. Neither sells appliances, though.

Sears doesn't have to worry about Chicago-area utilities getting in the act, however, though until the early 1960s Commonwealth Edison Co. and Peoples Gas Light and Coke Co. offered similar services and sold appliances.

Spokesmen for both said their companies had no interest in getting back into the repair business.

Some other consumer-oriented companies are exploring a super service program.

ServiceMaster, based in Downers Grove, Ill., plans to expand the service contract offered by American Home Shield Corp., which ServiceMaster acquired last year.

A company spokesman said American Home offers a repair contract to new home buyers that covers appliances purchased with the house.