Saving Sears

When I was a kid, the Sears Catalog was a sign that the school year was coming, or Christmas was imminent.  It really was a Wish Book for us.  My high school graduation gift was a lovely set of powder blue suitcases bearing the Sears identity.  Steve and I were over the moon when we could get our first vacuum at Sears after hge did a personal appearance. Just a few decades ago, Sears was where America shopped for value. Sears has logged 126 years in business.

Today,  Crain’s had an examination of Sears Holding Company’s value, and it was a complicated picture.  The final observation was that it was worth 30% more if broken to bits and sold off.  I do not have the balance sheet in front of me, but I understand that their brands and land are separate entities.  If you chip off enough of one or the other, I suppose it is not long until there is no more Sears.

Is that a bad thing?

Where is the instinct for survival that made America great?

Other merchants have pecked much of the shopper base from underneath Sears: Kohls, JCP, Bed Bath and Beyond and Target have grabbed market share.   Sears bought K Mart to eliminate some competition, but come on! K Mart once might have fought with Target and Kohls for the same dollars- they are in strip malls, and do not require an outing to the mall.  Alas, K Mart contented itself with old interiors, bad lighting, crummy merchandise and inadequate staffing. It would not be missed if it evaporated.  I say that with some misgiving, since I was raised a few miles from K Mart’s (former) international headquarters. When Martha Stewart moved her brands out, I never set foot in a K Mart. I believe I am in a broad majority.

Sears has most of its stores in large malls, where they anchor the smaller merchants.  I am not a big mall visitor at this time in my life, unless I have a goal and a destination.

What could make Sears a destination? What is the niche that will lure us back?

If I was charged with saving Sears, I would fire the person who hired the Kardashians to develop a fashion line for them for $12 million dollars. We may have active fantasy lives, but we know they do not shop at Sears. EVER. I actually believe that this move has been made.

There. That restructuring part was easy.

I have mentally closed K Mart and fired some strategic planners….what is next?

If I wanted to return Sears to a place of retail importance, I would identify what every American uses to live, and I would start by servicing those needs.  The cornerstone of their business used to be Craftsman Tools, Die Hard Batteries and Kenmore appliances.  They are still reliable and respected.  I would make sure they remain well made, reliable and attractive.

I would then examine every home and find the things they have in common: towels, sheets, pans, small appliances, dishes, socks, baby basics, underwear- and I would create a Made in America, FOR America line.  I would consolidate buying so that every thing in the store seemed to flow from the same vision. The costs could be higher than discounters generally charge, but these items would be built to last.  Quality can still sell.  People like to take pride in what they buy, and how they live. Branding in this manner would turn shoppers into a support system for American values.

Purchasing these things would be a vote of confidence for our manufacturing sector.  They could be tiered: good value, better value, best value- but they would all be items that anyone would be proud to own.

I would return Lands’ End to its catalog dominance and sell only “the best of” Lands’ End in the store.  Lands’ End uses its own merchandising and display,  and it makes the rest of Sears look shabby.  They utilize classic style which is absent everywhere else in the store. Sears should copy this.  Sears should hew to the tried and true, leave fads to the Forever 21 crowd. Hip and Sears are not concentric. Sturdy and constant are cherished values, too.

Either do women’s clothing in a better way, or dump it. Sell stuff that never goes totally out of the closet: jeans, black pants, basic sweaters, a sheath dress, and white shirts. Then add a few fun modular colors on a rotating basis, and scarves and accessories that can be used and disposed of.  It works for Eileen Fisher and J Jill.  Fashion and Sears should not overlap too much, because we are going to think of Sears as a steady presence, not a flashy tart of a store.

I am inexpert on men’s clothing, but the same theory rules.  Classic blazers, jeans, a basic well made suit with alterations available, traditional shirts and polos. That is it.  Men are not going to Sears to dress for success.  They are going to work/weddings/funerals/church- but they want value that will be in style year after year.

Kids stuff- easy and timeless.  Serve the basics.  Skip the gaudy.  Avoid licenses for cartoon/Disney/NFL.  If folks want that, they will buy it.  Elsewhere.  Just make sure that a busy Mom can grab matching things in a sweep, since she will have a baby in a stroller and perhaps other siblings to control.  Wide aisles. Bright lights, no place in rounders or racks for kids to hide.

I’m foolish for thinking I know how to save Sears.  I know this. I have no retailing experience or education.

It just seems to me that Sears has conceded so much territory to others that it will need to start reclaiming some.  Amazon has taken the catalog concept and turned it on its electronic ear.  Buy Buy Baby and Bed Bath and Beyond use discounting and concentrated product availability to corral their target shopper.  Target lured college educated women to their stores with inexpensive wardrobe additions.  It is time to steal back some turf.

With stores all over, next day delivery of a curated selection should be simple.  Send prospective moms discount vouchers so they can buy their entire nursery and layette without stepping into the giant temptations of a Big Box Baby store.  Build the best basic crib and buggy.  Create sheets that caress and wash well. Appeal to our desire to live more simply, supported by stuff that will last.  Stop imagining the client as just a value seeker, and add QUALITY and AMERICA to the mix. Call out manufacturers who sell the identical goods with different labels as snobbish and foolish.  Return to pride in value provided, value appreciated.

Next: think about shifting the clutter of the current print advertising to a more focused view.   Perhaps the Christmas Wish book could inspire a new generation of children, and Sears could reclaim the toy category from Amazon.  Online sales could be one-click, so customers could re-purchase the goods they enjoy and consume.

One thing seems obvious:  Sears has tried to save itself. But it has been shareholder focused, not shopper.  I think that by using the shoppers’ lens, the shareholders will be served.

Perhaps the pecking by all these competitors has made Sears so porous that it can only bleed out.  I hope not…Sears has a storied history of giving back to the community, and of supporting the armed forces in many ways.  Sears is part of our lives, especially in Chicago. My train case made me feel like a woman of the world.  My vacuum worked for 10 years. The last time I shopped in Sears I never left the Lands’ End area.  At Oakbrook, that represents 35% of the store.  The best 35%.

What do you think?  Is survival an impossible dream for a company that lost 3.1 billion last year?

What would lure you back?




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