Monday, November 28, 2011

An Open Letter To Sears

Dear Sears Executive Management Team, Board of Directors, and any other employees who actually care:

I have a major problem with Sears, but I also have hopes and dreams that Sears can once again become a store in which customers actually seek it out rather than simply ending up there as a last resort.  Sears has so much potential, but it seems leadership lacks the ability of tapping that potential and in fact it seems they stomp it to the ground as often as possible in order to prevent customers from thinking Sears might be a great place to spend money.

Sears is simply out of touch and yet it appears the management team doesn't even realize it. Watching this sad implosion is much like watching someone walk into a glass door and hit their head.  Rather than realizing the door is closed and they can't walk right through, they just keep pounding their head against the door again and again expecting a different result.

I'm sympathetic Sears... but my sympathy is short lived to people (or businesses) which don't learn from their mistakes.

One major issue with Sears is that you are trying to be all things to all people. You sell appliances, you sell electronics, you sell home furnishings, you sell baby items, you sell clothing for the entire family, you sell lawn and garden equipment, power machinery, tools, exercise equipment, vacuum cleaners, garage door openers, pool tables, grills, tires, car batteries, jewelry, shoes, kitchen gadgets, housewares, eyeglasses, photography sessions, and much, much more.

In my local store, you just added beds which required a sizable portion of the store to be removed in order to make way for a product which most likely will not do any better than the housewares it has supplanted.  How do I know this you ask?  Well for starters, within 1000 yards of my local Sears store you can find no less than FIVE other stores that sell mattresses.  I'm not talking about furniture stores here - I'm merely talking about stores that focus on beds and beds alone.
Don't believe me?  Here is a short list of the stores I'm referring to:

Beds and Beds
Klocker's Mattress World
Beds by Design
Select Comfort Sleep Systems
Comfort King Mattress Factory

One of these stores is in the same mall as Sears, and another one is about 100 yards away just across the parking lot.

In addition to the above, there are several furniture stores close by as well.  These include HOM Furniture as well as Slumberland Furniture.  There are also other big box retailers that offer beds including Sam's Club, Menards, Macys, JCPenny, and Big Lots.  The saddest part is that I'm listing these stores from memory which suggests there are probably a few others I'm not even aware of at the moment.

How about a little market research Sears? How about instead of trying to be all things to all people you define who your target customer is and what market you are trying to enter?  How about you define who your competition really is?  Are you trying to complete with Best Buy and Home Depot, or are you trying to compete with Montgomery Ward and Woolworths?  Sadly... it appears you are trying to compete with them all and you failed to get the memo that a few of them no longer exist.

Find something you do well, and stick with it. Even Walmart doesn't sell everything (you will notice they don't have a stellar tool selection, and they tend to shy away from most major appliances aside from the occasional dorm sized fridge or chest freezer). The fact is, Sears still has a reputation built around brands like Craftsman and Kenmore, so why is it so hard to focus on what people actually want?

Most people don't go to Sears to buy clothing... they go to Sears to buy something else and just happened to find a pair of jeans on the way out.  People also aren't looking for fine jewelry or perfume at Sears, nor do they want to buy a mattress from a store that stocks string trimmers two aisles away nor do they want to be assisted from a guy who was selling shoes ten minutes ago, and who will probably be talking to someone about a cordless drill an hour later. 

The average Sears store is a relic, and sadly is probably twice the size it would need to be.  Many are located in malls which are underperforming, and those that are truly standalone stores just aren't destinations any longer.  What Sears should do is focus upon appliances (both large and small if you must), lawn and garden, and tools.  Drop "the softer side of Sears" because it isn't working.  Kick the mattresses and the shoes to the curb, remove the glass cases full of gold plated Timex watches, and let someone else take the cheesy family photos and sell bargain eyeglasses to the kids.

It is time to understand that Sears hasn't been relevant for 20 years.  It is time to acknowledge your idea of what is trendy or what is hip really isn't.  Nobody wants to spend a premium for something that has Ty Pennington's name on it nor do people want the Kardashian name printed on the front of their shirt.  The average person who shops at Sears is not a designer nor a fan of People magazine... they don't care about the people you seem to think they care about.  For every piece of Kardashian clothing you sell, someone else is shaking their heads as they turn around and head towards Macys or Kohls. 

It is probably also worth noting that nobody under the age of 40 even knows who Jaclyn Smith is, so while your competition is snapping up celebrity names like Martha Stewart, Sean Comes, and Gwen Stefani, you are still trying to convince the world that trendy clothing should somehow be synonymous with a former 70s television star.  If that isn't a prime example of how Sears is no longer relevant I'm not sure what is.

Finally, when you start acknowledging that you can't be the best at everything and that you can't be all things to all people, perhaps you will also acknowledge that when someone else offers a better product, it is probably a good idea to sell it rather than try to make it.  Sorry, but slapping the Craftsman or Kenmore name on an otherwise inferior product is no way to build brand loyalty.  In fact it has the opposite effect.

This is why so many other premium brands restrict where the brand can be used. Audi doesn't put their logo on a Volkswagen.  Banana Republic doesn't stock Old Navy sweatshirts in their stores.  DeWalt has distanced themselves from Black & Decker.  Ralph Lauren sells his lower priced items under the Chaps brand.

Kenmore and Craftsman should be premium brands.  They should not be diluted to the point where they can be tossed on grill accessories or cheap garage cabinetry made out of MDF, or cheap imported tools.  Extending the brand does not necessarily improve the brand, and until you realize that you will continue to lose millions of dollars each and every quarter.  Or, as is the case with your most recent quarter... you will lose HUNDREDS of millions of dollars.  I won't claim to be an economist or long-term business strategist, but I somehow don't feel that business model is sustainable.

Oh and by the way... the 1980s called and asked if they could have their Sears logo back. This is the modern world, and it requires a modern look.  Hire a new marketing firm and step one should be a logo redesign.  Retro styling would serve it well, and a shift to "Sears and Roebuck" and or a shift straight to the "Roebuck" name with a premium twist might serve you well.  Sadly, taking your company backwards 100 years would actually result in modernizing the entire concept.  However please don't insult your customers by slapping up a new sign and pretending everything has changed.  You need to start from the ground up.  Modernize the stores, improve the customer experience, remove the high pressure sale tactics that make customers feel like they are walking the Midway at a carnival, focus on what you can do well, and maybe you will see your beloved customers return.



  1. Sadly, Kenmore and Craftsman are no longer premium brands. Entering life from college in 1981, my first credit card was Sears. My first lawn mower was a Craftsman, and first washer and dryer were Kenmore.

    That first washer and dryer pair lasted 10 years and raising two children. They were replaced mainly because I had natural gas available after relocating. Their replacements lasted less than two years before rusting and falling apart.

    That first lawnmower lasted 13 years. I could have fixed it by replacing a simple gasket, but made the mistake of purchasing another Craftsman instead. In less than one year it rusted in half -- literally catastrophically shearing and collapsing at midpoint like a crushed insect.

    Speaking from the perspective of being in my mid-50's and as an engineer, my grandparents built a Sears home from a catalog kit in then undeveloped Florida, a magnificent two story home that stands solid and stately to this day. And seventy years later Sears could still be counted upon to deliver quality.

    Yet in the 90's, the MBA's and spread-sheeters took over and marginalized everything to increase profit margin. In doing so, Sears lost an entire generation (and all that will follow) in only a decade.

    RIP Sears.

  2. Sadly, you aren't the first person to echo those statements regarding Sears quality and how it has changed.

    I still think they have some quality products, but they have started to attach their brands to such a wide range of products (from a wide range of manufacturers) that you never know what you might get.

    Sears could be turned around, but they need a bold new strategy and they have to be willing to take risks instead of reacting to what everyone else is doing well after it has occurred.

    They need a visionary to step into the leadership role, but it seems like they simply don't care to be innovative.

    Someone recently mentioned when they go to the mall they always park near Sears because they can also get a great parking spot, and I thought to myself that I do that EXACT. SAME. THING.

    That can't be a good sign for Sears. I wonder when they will figure it out.