The demise of a retail giant

I happened to walk into the clothing dept. a Sears dept store last week; something I have not done in a loooong time. I went there to buy some sweats for my dad. I usually go to Sears to buy tools- their Craftsman tools are still one the best with a very good warranty and I love their tools department. However, I have not been to any of the other departments for a while because one would not want to be caught buying clothes from Sears. This is a paradigm shift from the Sears of yore- when it was the premier brand in the US. The Sears catalog was a sought after item and consumers waited for the thick book with thousands of interesting items; it was especially popular during Christmas, when kids were allowed to select an item or two from the catalog as their gift. The Sears brand was prestigious both for shopping and employment; working in their stores was a sought after job and many a family made a good living working at Sears. Even as far back as 1989-90 (which is as far as my history in the US goes), the Sears brand was strong – they sold Whitewall tyres, Craftman tools, Kenmore appliances, and an assortment of clothes.

Over the years, Sears seemed to lose its way; they were not sure if they were a department store, a specialty store, a hardware store, or an appliance store. As they tried to find their way, newer stores specializing in each of these categories started eating away at their market share. And then came the internet and online stores like Amazon, which were able to offer better prices and more important better service.

The Sears I visited last week seemed tired, and trudging along without a sense or purpose. The people working there seemed listless as well. The demographics of shoppers has changed as well. No more is Sears a store where the middle class want to shop or even be seen at. Interestingly, the demographics of the sales people seems to have changed as well- perhaps to match the demographics of the shoppers.

As I wandered through the store, I saw all the signs of a store that does not care – the artificial brick facade wall paper on the pillars, the lack of interest of the sales people to help you, the lack of foot traffic on a Sunday….. all signs of a store that has lost its way.

I started remembering the other icons of America – Pan American Airlines, TWA Airlines, Woolworths, Montgomery Ward Dept Store, Emporium Dept Store, Circuit City, CompUsa, Linen’NThings, Osco Drugs, Gateway Computers, Levitz Furniture, and more recently Radio Shack- all of which are no more or on their way out.

I remembered what I had learnt in my marketing class from my MBA program from over 20 years ago- companies need to identify the what business they are in and continuously innovate to ensure they stay relevant to their area of focus and competitive to their customers. The company making kerosine lanterns did not recognize until it was too late that they were in the business providing light – and when the electric light bulb was invented and became commercialized, found itself irrelevant to the customer and closed shop.

Old brick-and-mortar stores find it even more challenging to stay relevant in the world of social networking, and the new generation of shoppers who both interact and shop in a whole new way. It is therefore imperative for them to relate to the new generation and continiously reinvent themselves if they want to succeed or even survive.


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