Sears: an example of why our corporations are dumber than you think

I just finished reading an article about the downfall of the business I grew up knowing as Sears, Roebuck & Company. Management seems not to know how to right the ship. To me it looks like RMS Titanic‘s bridge crew ordering everyone to grab a bucket and start bailing.

As a child, Sears was relevant to me. Sears was one source of catalogs that offered toys and gift ideas I could not find in nearby stores. Later in life, Sears added importance as a source of catalogs that depicted women’s lingerie. Sometimes one could see shadowy areolae, stuff of dreams. The Montgomery, Ward catalog also hooked me in early because Ward’s also sold toys and stuff with football logos. I dismissed the J.C. Penney catalogs until my aging brought them relevance as another source of lingerie photography.

To hear the article’s author tell it (see for yourself if you’d like), Sears’s executives have no idea why no one comes to Sears anymore. If that’s so, they are stupid. The author identifies one reason, which is that every shopping area touched on by Sears is covered better by a specialized competitor. But that’s also true of Wal-Mart. People still find a reason to shop at Wal-Mart (cheapness, or perhaps desire to see the grotesque underside of human nature). Why don’t people find a reason to shop at Sears?

The execs don’t know?

God, this is stupid.

Young businesspeople: if you think your competition is smarter than you are, just remember that those who rise to great power end up running corporations like Sears. They aren’t that smart.

Part of the reason is that the jobs available to young adults have been so crappy, underpaid, and futureless that they don’t have much money to spend, especially if they are trying to pay student loans. Also, or perhaps therefore, those young people aren’t yet buying homes. Despite historically low interest rates, many still can’t and many more prefer not to. Since they have never known exorbitant interest rates, they do not have an experiential apprehension of the hideousness of double-digit interest. The irresistible opportunity to build relatively inexpensive equity toward non-payment of rent one day falls on deaf ears. So does the notion that, for so long as they rent, they will remain at the economic mercy of landowners. They accept this, even in reasonably priced markets. Not all, but more than pure economics explain.

Sears never did mean too much to apartment-dwellers.

Once I became clever enough, then old enough to obtain more interesting depictions of the feminine form than Sears and Ward could publish in a catalog, Sears fell off my radar. I survived high school, attended college, went to work, paid my student loans (the sum total of which were roughly 1/4 of one year’s pay), and lived in one-bedroom apartments. I also had frequent enough opportunities to view the feminine form, live and in person, that I no longer cared whether I received a catalog. I was past toys, at least the kind found in a catalog. I didn’t go “clothes shopping.” If I needed suits, I went to a store that focused on suits. If I needed socks, I sure as hell wasn’t going to battle mall parking and traffic just so I could have the Sears experience.

By itself, my marriage at 34 did not by itself change the equation at all, because we still lived in an apartment. What changed, at 37, was home ownership. I had never before needed a lawn mower, or a really good vacuum cleaner, or a nice tool chest, or to replace a washer and dryer. Sears was different. If you had a problem with your Sears purchase, they had a good return policy, or you could call them and get help figuring it out. This was fantastic. All of a sudden, for a few short years, Sears mattered to me. Before I bought a table saw anywhere else, I had to ask myself what I’d do if I couldn’t figure something out. A garage door opener? With all that fussing and aligning? No other realistic option but Sears. If it didn’t work, I’d be able to get help on the phone.

Because we went to Sears for those sorts of items, we were inside the store. That may seem like a Captain Obvious moment, but marketing professionals don’t seem to grasp it. Because there was a reason to be in a Sears, we shopped for other things. My wife would browse their clothes. We might notice an iced tea maker. While we were there, we might pick up some socks. Tools at Sears had an excellent reputation. Because there was one sovereign reason to shop at Sears, one key factor that brought us to the store, we were customers. Was Sears the cheapest? Probably almost never. Did we care? If we had, we’d have shopped at the human zoo that is Wal-Mart. Anyone focused purely on the lowest price, cheep cheep cheap, is as foolish as my parents were. I grew up with parents who would buy only the very cheapest option at the very cheapest place, which meant that everything we owned was crappy and fell apart. I admit that this is a bias of mine. I came to hate what cheapness meant. As an adult, I intended to own things that didn’t fall to pieces. To me, the price was and is less important than the ability to buy with confidence. As a homeowner, Sears was essential to my world.

Then my Sears vacuum cleaner stopped working.

It had been an expensive vac, we hadn’t used it that heavily, and I wasn’t planning to just chuck it. Over the past few years, I had noticed a general decline in the quality, attitudes, and quantities of Sears sales staff. Now I found out that the tree was not merely barked but girdled. “May I please speak with someone in vacuums?”

“We can tell you where to find the nearest repair center, sir.”

“That’s not what I want. I need help figuring out why this thing isn’t working any more.”

“We don’t offer that any more, sir.”

Oh.

Creative executive stupidity. In the erroneous opinion that the way to compete was cheap cheep cheep cheep megacheap lowest price just give me the best price cheap cheep cheep, they’d hunted down and eradicated the only thing that made their company unique. Instead of doubling down on that and making Sears an even better place to shop, they’d turned it into a Wal-Mart of sorts: one that didn’t sell groceries, but required one to go to a shopping mall. Brilliant.

I can’t even remember the last time I went to Sears to actually buy actual merchandise with actual money. Sears locations are mall anchor stores, complicating my path as I forge ahead for a commercial cattle raid. I pay little attention to the merchandise as I pass. I wouldn’t care if Sears collapsed, as I assume it must.

It was not me that broke up this relationship.

How could this have been avoided?

Sears stores are large enough to contain a Best Buy. Sears should have become Best Buy. It should have used its buying power to make itself the fount of retail technology, selling the TVs and computers inexpensively and offering helpful expertise. If that expertise went on site, it could charge for it. The area where the most people have the most need for someone to explain stuff to them, and the company whose wheelhouse was the ability to help people. Would it break even on the electronics? Probably a wash after paying all the people whose job it is to help Granny program her remote and be patient when she complains, “I can’t get my Explorer to download my browser email, and my hard disk thing keeps popping out, and the foot pedal doesn’t go down, and this keyboard isn’t like the ones we had when I taught typing; what do these F buttons do?” Would it have brought large numbers of new customers into Sears, walking past clothing and coffee makers? I think it would have. Of course, this did not occur. Sears typically had a decent TV selection, plus a computer selection that was an expensive afterthought.

Think on this next time you are tempted to assume that having corporate leaders run the government would be a good idea.

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