Saving Sears (it’s too late!)

It was announced today that ‘Sears Holdings Corp.’ is closing 150 Sears and K-Mart stores and (*gasp*) selling the Craftsman brand to Black & Decker (for $900 million!).  This makes me sad, really. I spent a lot of time as a kid thumbing through the Sears catalog for my Christmas wish list. I spent just as much time as a young adult, thumbing through the Craftsman catalogs for my next tool that I had to have. The Craftsman quality and guarantee are what pulled me in and kept me coming back.

So what happened with Sears? I think they got too big for their britches. Sears started off selling goods that people needed through catalogs. But their decline, I think, really started when they stopped issuance of the catalog in 1993. The Internet wasn’t even a factor yet!  It was how people shopped from home BEFORE the Internet. Sears’ failure, from my perspective, was the ‘go bigger’ mentality. To me, this is the failure of many public companies, who are always chasing the elusive earnings-per-share increase. Sears became a ridiculous amalgamation of companies that had NOTHING to do with retail. They tried to make their stores bigger. They bought other chains, such as K-Mart and Lands’ End. Bigger, bigger, bigger! Their website has been a mess for years, when they tried to become a ‘marketplace’, selling from unreliable sources that are not related to Sears. They became a store that had no identity. Was it an upscale department store like Macy’s? A discount department store like K-Mart? A hardware and lawn/garden/patio store? Or was it an appliance and electronics store? Inevitably, they were the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.

To me, they truly missed the boat with their ‘Sears Appliance & Hardware’ and ‘Sears Hometown’ stores. THAT could have been the future of Sears, and probably would have been great for long-term growth. Instead of going BIG, they needed to go smaller. There’s a reason that retailers such as Rural King and Tractor Supply Co. are growing. Their specialties are more narrow, despite offering a variety of things (hardware, home/garden, pet/livestock, clothing, hunting/fishing). But in typical Sears fashion, they half-@ssed it. They converted former K-Marts or opened these stores in bland buildings. They operated them like discount/outlet stores. They had no identity.  They failed to offer an EXPERIENCE, which is what shoppers want today.

I understand that ‘Sears Holdings’ is bigger than just the retail segment. But that is what has kept them afloat. What I would’ve loved to have seen would have been a K-Mart sized store, but with focus on the shopping experience and customer service. They should have spun off all the things like financial services, optical, etc. Forget the high-end clothing — there’s enough of that elsewhere. They should have kept their TRUSTED brands, such as Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard, Weatherbeater, etc. With a focus on tools, home & patio, appliances, workwear/casual clothing, and perhaps their tire & auto business, I think the smaller stores would’ve been very competitive. And again, the shopping experience is key now.  Bass Pro Shops knows this and nails it.  Imagine a tire & auto center with Route 66 decor and styling. Or a tools department that looks like an industrial job site. Or perhaps an appliance department that felt like you were walking into various rooms of a home with personal consulting (not sales)?

“You walk into a retail store, whatever it is, and if there’s a sense of entertainment and excitement and electricity, you wanna be there. “ –  Howard Schultz (chairman and CEO of Starbucks and a former owner of the Seattle SuperSonics.)

The lesson here? Regardless of whether you’re a person or a business, it’s better to be great at some things (or one thing) than to try being good at everything.  The bigger the load you carry, the more likely you are to drop it.  To be strong, be focused on the right things, like service and quality. As those things go, so does your success.

Thanks for reading…
~Mike