At first glance, it seems as though the credit crisis would hit a retailer's account base hard. But Susan Ehrlich has managed to keep Sears Holdings Corp.'s customer count steady with a few old-fashioned tricks.

In the face of a darkening economy and falling consumer spending, she revived Sears' layaway program last Christmas season, which helped the retail giant add one million customer relationships and another $120 million in volume for the fourth quarter 2008.

This August, Ehrlich introduced a Christmas club savings program that rewards shoppers 3 percent of the amount they put on a stored-value card, with a $100 cap. "It's another page from an earlier playbook that retailers have to make available savings programs," Ehrlich says.

"These really are wild times," Ehrlich adds. "The strategy has been to manage and cultivate lots of opportunities, because in uncertainty, you just want to maintain as much flexibility as you can."

Another key way Sears is maintaining its base of 40 million cardholders is by stepping up solicitation of non-card customers at the point of sale. It's less expensive than direct mail, and often more effective.

In terms of leadership, Ehrlich has made professional development a top priority. Ehrlich hired a coach this year to meet with each of her seven reports once a month. "At minimum, folks could be making an investment in their own development, and reap the benefits and gains that it would provide," she says.

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