There is a group on Facebook for people who grew up in Jackson, MI. The posts are mostly, “Who remembers …?” so that former Jacksonians can reminisce about days long past. A recent post was about Toy House. A couple hundred people waxed nostalgic about visiting the original store in the 50’s and 60’s.
Several people mentioned the Catalog Sale, something my grandfather started early on.
The Catalog Sale was a two-weekend sale, once in October, once in November, where people brought in their catalogs and we matched the catalog price on any toy we had in stock. Our goal was to keep the sales in town.
The most common catalog was the Sears Christmas Wishbook.
We ended the Catalog Sale in the early 1980’s when it turned out our prices were usually sharper than the catalogs at that time. The event was no longer a draw. By 1993 even Sears had stopped producing their catalog.
Times change. Retail shifts. Today Sears has filed bankruptcy.
Sears was Amazon before Amazon with their mail-order catalog business that allowed you to buy almost anything you could imagine from the comfort of your own home.
Sears was Walmart before Walmart when they dominated the retail landscape in the 1940’s and 50’s by offering a wide variety of merchandise at low prices. By 1969 Sears was the largest retailer in America with a larger market share of categories like home appliances than any retailer has ever had since. Four years later they completed construction on the tallest building in the world.
Sears also was a pioneer in retail, with legendary sales training, teaching their sales staff how to upsell and not sell from their own pocketbook. They were taught how to sell on features and benefits. They had their own credit card (which eventually became the Discover Card). They had their own insurance agency (which became AllState).
Today they filed bankruptcy.
The easy blame is going to be Amazon and Walmart. Amazon out-Searsed Sears in the mail-order business. Walmart out-Searsed Sears in the commodity goods business.
Yet when was the last time you truly thought of Sears as a convenience-based place to buy goods? They dropped their catalog back in 1992, two years before Amazon launched.
And with well-known economy brands like Kenmore, Craftsman, and Diehard, tons of cash, and superior vendor relationships, Sears was well-positioned to destroy Walmart in the race to the bottom. Yet they dropped faster than a greased baton at the blind relays.
So what happened?
The answer is quite simple. Sears got away from their competitive advantages and Core Values. Convenience and Commodity Brands were only two of them. The one I believe they truly missed was their sales training.
When was the last time you were blown away by the customer service at Sears?
Toys R Us got away from their Core Values in 1992 when Walmart surpassed them in total toy sales. Sears did the same thing over the years as they gave up the advantages that brought them to the table.
There are several (contradictory?) lessons in all of this.
- Retail is always changing.
- New competitors will try to beat you at your own game.
- Stick to what you do best.
- Don’t give up your advantages.
- Adapt or die.
- Stay true to your Values.
We’ll explore these concepts over the next few days and try to learn from their mistakes.
PS It is never a good day when a legacy retailer such as Sears files bankruptcy. If we don’t learn from their mistakes, though, then we’re likely to make the same ones ourselves. As I’ve always said, Retail is not Rocket Science. Rocket Science is actually math for which you can solve all the variables. Retail has variables and equations that never fully resolve. The lessons, though, are fascinating.