By Jarred Roy, BrandSource General Manager
At its zenith, the once mighty Sears was Amazon, Walmart and Home Depot all rolled into one, with more than 3,500 flagship stores across the country. Yet as of May 2021, only 37 Sears and 24 Kmart locations still stand as testaments to the onetime retail mecca. How Sears lost its way, and what lessons we can learn from its downfall, were the subject of this 2019 reflection by BrandSource VP Jarred Roy.
On Top of the World…
I still have the last issue of the Sears catalog that was ever released. Call it sentimental, call it reflective, I call it a tangible link to a seminal moment. I kept this book knowing that the future would forever change as the catalog came to an end. Many moments as a boy were spent wishing for everything that this mighty book had to offer. My brothers and I would look through it at the wonders that could be ours from new Reebok Pump sneakers to gas powered remote control cars.
This enormous, thousand-page “wish book” came in the mail, filled with every conceivable product you could ever want. How amazing that we could see all the latest stuff, all in one place. For those who may not have the same memories, or even know what I’m referring to, think if Amazon put everything it had to sell in one print catalog. Incredible, right? At one point, Sears was both the largest employer and the largest publisher (think 40 million catalogs @ 1000+ pages) in the country. Sears was the largest, most formidable retailer that had come to exist. They sold more products to more people than any other retailer in the history of the world.
There were Sears mall stores, rural catalog stores, consumer credit cards, insurance, investments, roofing, service technicians and much more. In many ways, Sears invented multi-channel retailing long before Amazon joined the game. It’s ironic that Sears’ last home-delivered catalog ran in 1993, just one year before Amazon was founded in 1994. Sears was a juggernaut that continued to innovate and reinvent itself for over 100 years; however, somewhere along the way Sears lost its focus. This focus starts with the consumer’s needs, wants and desires to purchase their way, meaning what they want, when they want it and how they will buy it.
Sears was indeed a formidable competitor when I began my launch into retail during high school and college in Missouri. Sears was the market share leader in virtually every city at that time (the 90s). Even though the closest Sears would be in Kansas City, St. Joseph or Des Moines, they drew consumers from the reaches of rural Missouri and Iowa based on brands you could trust, staff that was professional and customer service that seemed to have no end. At that time, they had great distribution, speedy local repair and white glove delivery. Sears was everywhere and seemingly did everything better than anyone else at the time.
Fast forward to my post -college debut as a young sales representative for Maytag Appliances calling on independent dealers and … yes, you guessed it, Sears mall stores and Hometown stores. Both had their place, both complementing one another to grow the Sears consumer base which was prided on loyalty, leading brands, exceptional service and convenient credit card financing. I found myself intrigued by how such a big organization could execute flawlessly at the ground level.
The times they are a-changing…
It may now seem like a distant memory, but there was a time not long ago when Sears seemed invincible. How could a 100+ year-old venerable brand like Sears fall from grace so swiftly? What happened to the chain that not only defined modern retailing, but also invented multi-channel distribution, private label branding and so much more? That’s an important question for any retailer to ask, particularly independent retailers looking not only to fill the void but more importantly to avoid the same pitfalls. It is said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps this could be one of the greatest case studies of modern-day retail.
In truth, I say Sears lost its way because it lost touch with its shoppers and its local markets. Sears was an integral part of the fabric of America until cost-cutting measures and centralized decision-making began to erode the connection their brand had in hometown USA. Decisions began to be made less at the local level and more by disconnected people who didn’t understand retail and local markets. It’s hard to see changes coming if you aren’t staying in tune with the way people are changing their shopping habits.
What makes us different?
The bloat and disconnect that is largely responsible for the unraveling of Sears is exactly the opposite of our model at BrandSource. We, like you, run lean and focused. We give you the industry’s best tools and the resources to succeed, but you make the decisions at the ground level. We know the industry and you know the market – that’s a powerful combination. As an independent locally owned business backed by the strength of our group, you have the unique ability to react to local market conditions and act decisively. You possess a unique “boots on the ground” mentality that Sears, the box stores and even Amazon will never have. This, coupled with the industry savvy that BrandSource brings to the table, will allow you to better adapt to a changing marketplace.
Opportunity awaits us!
The fallout from the Sears implosion is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you. There are untold millions of Sears customers who are now looking for a new trusted source to buy from. The Sears customer is seeking a well-trained and knowledgeable staff, exceptional service before and after the sale, along with a great in-store experience. Sound familiar? It should! The Sears customer fits us like a glove – let’s go get them!
While it saddens me to see once-venerable brands like Sears stumble, I am heartened by the opportunity it presents to us. The lessons for us here are clear: Stay close to our shoppers, serve them with respect, pay attention to a changing marketplace, embrace the multi-channel experience, both in store and online, and you will prevail.
YSN is published by BrandSource parent company AVB Inc.