Shopping, Sears and Me

I love to shop. I’m talking about reason to live, first thing you think about in the morning, when can I go again love! I guess that is why I have been a retail analyst most of my adult life. So I consider shopping, retail, the shopping ambiance, the retail experience, whatever we call it these days since the recession, I consider these my avocation and my vocation. I am an expert!

My mother imparted this love to me, as is the case with most girls. It is imprinted on us like little ducks from an early age, this need to gather, to get the prettiest, most current, loveliest shoes, sweaters, pants, skirts, purses, that we can afford. And as a corollary, there are certain shopping rules, again imparted by our mothers. For example, my childhood in an upper middle class suburb of Chicago, taught me that there were only a few department stores where we were allowed to shop for clothes: Marshall Fields and Carson Pirie Scott. WE WERE NOT ALLOWED TO STEP FOOT INTO SEARS! Now I know this is deathly un-PC and there were not a boatload of clothes to be had at Sears back then, no “softer side of Sears,” still we were not allowed to step foot into the store on a girls shopping trip.

When I became a retail analyst, that had to change, but I still have the “No Sears” song in my head.  As most of us know, Sears has done quite a bit in the last ten years to deserve my scorn. They have made many decisions, none of them based on being a great retailer. Considering the ruthless competitive landscape in retail, it’s a miracle that Kmart (who now owns Sears) has survived. Tough rivals in the discount segment abound, including WalMart Stores, Target, and Costco. All three of these behemoths have much stronger brands and customer loyalty than either Sears or Kmart. And regardless of whether hedge fund manager and Sears chairman Eddie Lampert is involved — his mere presence often seems to make some investors consider Sears’ future as a hedge fund, not a retailer — Sears and Kmart both lost their brand luster many years back.

Why am I blogging about Sears today? One thing Sears had going for it way back when was its great brand of appliances, ease of shopping for them, great repair service and service contracts. They were vertically integrated. So all of our appliances are from Sears and they are for the most part, work horses. But when they break, it has been a tear-your-hair-out nightmare to get an appointment for service. We had a minor part break on our refrigerator this summer and it took six visits to get it fixed because they kept sending the wrong part or the service man didn’t show up at the appointed time or they had to cancel or some other excuse that never made sense. It didn’t bother me too much because the refrigerator still worked, although it was very funny to receive a white door for the unit when the refrigerator is stainless steel! (Doors are very big and bulky to mail!)

The last appliance to break was the clothes dryer. I called to schedule an appointment to get it fixed and knew it was going to be a nightmare, but we bought the service contract so we are on the hook with Sears. The agent at the scheduling center told me I had to wait three weeks. I told him that was unacceptable, at which point he pretty much told me to go “F” myself, that I could take it or leave it, that they had no complaint department, he had no supervisor and if he was in my position he would just leave it alone. So I called a local service to fix the problem and sent Sears the bill with a letter of explanation, a very rational letter, and enclosed the repair bill. I fully expected nothing, but I felt better doing it.

Two months later, my husband got a call (in fact now 4 calls) from Sears. He referred the first caller to me. They told me they were extremely sorry for the way I was treated, but they had no control over their repair servicing arm, which of course, they don’t. He told me he would be sending a check for $18.75 for parts (the bill in fact was $100) and that they would be sending me a $50 Sears gift card for my trouble. Will this make me ever consider Sears again for anything? This is called “customer mop-up.”

So here I was with a $50 gift card for a store that I now had multiple reasons not to shop. I tried to force myself into our local store three times before I finally made it. So what was my experience this time, with the 2010 “softer side of Sears?”

I was sad to see that Sears lived down to my expectations. With so many category killers doing a superb job in their niche, they just didn’t do anything well. They didn’t own the “cheap chic” category, they didn’t own the “cheap/inexpensive” category, and oh my god, the quality of the soft goods was abhorrent!

So they have stuck with the warning from my childhood, “NEVER SHOP AT SEARS!” The store carried cheaply made goods (soft and hard), mostly unattractive, AND FOR A PREMIUM PRICE!!!! .

Why would anyone shop at Sears?

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8 responses to “Shopping, Sears and Me

  1. Service is really a lost art in the face of a primary focus on profit. The practice of ‘contracting out’ various parts of the customer experience (i.e., credit cards/financing, warranty service, delivery, etc) backfires more than it works, as your story shows! Maybe you should simply donate your $50 Sears card and take a tax deduction…

  2. Timothy –
    What an awesome idea! There are so many people in this country who would feel like it was Christmas if they could go and buy their children several pairs of shoes at Sears with a $50 gift certificate!
    And Jill, your blog made me smile, because in my upbringing, JCPenny and Sears were the value stores we were allowed to shop in. The Broadway was for special occasions only!

  3. Great stuff, as always Jill. Decades ago when I was growing up, Sears was “the” hard goods Place to shop. I tagged along enthusiastically with my dad when he bought his camping gear, tools, appliances, even work clothes. The problem is they never really did focus on the female shopper who accounts for, what? 70% of all purchases, other than for a brief period when they brought in Arthur Martinez from Saks and rolled out “the Softer Side” program. Problem was, as you point out, they never did find a way to differentiate themselves and create a distinct niche, and the program failed to do more than briefly lift the stock. A bid part of the problem, I believe, is they didn’t bring in enough new people to change the stodgy existing culture and, as a result, status quo (old dog – new trick rule!) Eventually they lost the hard goods business to more conveniently located, and better priced, Home Depot and Lowe’s. As for Eddie Lampert, he never made any bones about the fact that his acquision of both Sears and K-Mart was a real estate play. Retail was just something to do until he figured out a way to flip the real estate at a huge profit. He probably never counted on the “great recession” in residential and commercial real estate.

  4. LOVED this article. Made me laugh. Too bad there isn’t an Orbach’s to compare Sears to. When I was a kid the ONLY store we shopped was Orbach’s for clothes. I’m not sure if it was because there were bargains to be had (this is what I suspect, knowing my mother) but for sure we NEVER shopped Sears for clothes. That would be the equivilant of eating bacon, ham, and possibly cotton candy in one day.

  5. Jill,
    My experience with Sears appliance service and repair has been different…in fact, good. Maybe it’s being in Colorado Springs instead of Southern California.

    One thing Sears seems to be having success with is a store concept that’s just appliances. Their outlet stores that sell products at 40% discounts. The appliances are discontinued models, seconds and “damaged” (which normally means a slight scratch that often can’t be found without a map and guide). This store is about 25,000 sf. We have one at a neighborhood retail center we manage, and it’s been quite successful since opening two years ago.

  6. I could not agree more….and I remember the connection I once made with my first Sears tool kit at 12…they had a chance to keep me forever.

    Would love to see a followup on Target, and how they got this right.

    Keep on Blogging!

  7. I still think Sears can’t be beat as a value for the hard-core “recessionistas”. – particularly short-life items like kid’s clothes. I bought my son a perfectly nice black suit for 5th graduation for under $50! Where else would that be possible?!

    And why pay more for something they’ll outgrow in a month!

    It has its place…

  8. Sears recalled

    Growing up in Northern California in the 60’s, going to Sears was a regular weekend family outing, especially for my father and I. Dad had a workshop in the garage filled with craftsman tools, many of which were years old and cherished for their quality and reliability. Dad used to say you were only as good as your tools, so to have the best mattered in those days when fathers used to fix everything themselves. We always needed something for his latest project, and Sears, like the general store of another time, was the place to go. We also had a variety of household appliances featuring the trusted Kenmore name, from the dishwasher to the water heater (though the washer & dryer, seemingly in operation for decades, were of course, Maytag).

    What I remember most about the Sears of my childhood is the smell of popcorn. There in the middle of the ground floor was a concession stand with a machine that popped corn, just like at the movies. This was the highlight of the trip for me. I would contentedly follow my father from department to department, holding that warm tapered box. Talk about brand experience! I was hooked.

    Occasionally a customer would assume Dad was a salesperson and ask him about a particular tool. Never missing a beat, he launch in on a full description of the feature benefits as well as he own experience with the item. It was only when the customer asked him to ring up sale that Dad informed him that he did not work at the store. Thus Sears was home to my early training in improvisational theater, as well.

    As you have noted, today Sears, like many stellar retailers of the twentieth century, has a muddled brand identity. For my wife and teenage daughters, it doesn’t even appear as a blip on their shopping radar. And yet, for me, when looking for that new double oven or vacuum cleaner, I always end up at Sears. No pop corn now, and likely few knowledge sales people, but still a sense of quality and value that harkens back to a time of trust and confidence when a brand name stood for something you could count on.

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