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Two Forks in the Road for Sears

In 1988 Walmart opened their first Supercenter in Washington, Missouri. The Supercenter concept heralded Walmart’s entry into the highly-competitive, low-profit, huge cash flow, repeat-traffic driver grocery business.

Two years later Walmart surpassed Sears in total sales to become the largest retailer in America.

By 2004 Walmart was capturing one out of every four dollars spent on groceries and remains the biggest player in the grocery industry.

Walmart ad in Vogue Magazine

In May 2005 Walmart did something completely unexpected. They ran a full-page ad of their new fashion launch in Vogue Magazine. Yes, Walmart and Vogue. No, it wasn’t a designer pajama line to wear when you visited a Walmart. Walmart wanted to do to fashion what it had done with grocery.

There was only one problem. Fashion isn’t a commodity like groceries. One year later Walmart reported declining sales for the first time (at a time when most retailers and the economy were booming). By 2007 they scrapped their foray into fashion and went back to what they did best—sell mass-produced items at cheap prices. When the economy tanked in 2008, Walmart found itself back on top with sales growth and cash flow.

I tell you this story in our discussion of the lessons from Sears filing bankruptcy (part 1 and part 2because it illustrates what can happen when a company tries to diversify the right way and the wrong way. Walmart’s model is built on selling cheap goods cheaper than anyone else.

Their foray into groceries made sense. Fashion, not so much. When Walmart began selling groceries it vaulted them to the top of the retail mountain. When they got away from what they did best, it caused them to falter.

Sears made the same mistake in the 1980’s and never recovered.

Sears made its living in the same style as Walmart—selling lower-priced items. One difference, however, was that Sears sold “value” more than price. The well-trained staff* would talk you out of the most and least-expensive versions of their appliances by showing you the “value” you got from buying something in-between with a lot of bells and whistles.

Sears also made its living by having stores near urban centers, but also a catalog to serve the less-represented rural areas.

This recipe put them on top of the world.

COMPETITION

While Sears had made a living selling to rural markets through their catalog, Walmart was quickly encroaching their territory with actual stores. Walmart went after the rural markets that didn’t have the retail glut of the urban locations, the same rural markets where the Sears catalog was most popular.

Walmart also used its growing power with vendors to bully them into better pricing to undercut the competition and define the sales in terms of “price”, not “value.”

Whether through hubris or ignorance, Sears ignored this threat and instead focused on diversifying their portfolio.

CORE VALUES

Back in 1930 Sears had launched Allstate Insurance, a value-based insurance company. The success of that led Sears to get into three other industries in the 1980’s—financial planning (Dean Witter), real estate (Coldwell Banker), and credit (Discover Card). 

Like Walmart and grocery, Sears and insurance was a fit. Insurance is a product people have to buy but want to buy it affordably (value). Like Walmart and fashion, financial planning and real estate were not a good fit for Sears because they aren’t sold the same way. Sears was sinking valuable time and resources into ventures that weren’t consistent with their Core Values or their primary business model.

Sears divested themselves of those entities in the 1990’s but by then the damage was done.

Walmart and Kmart surpassed Sears in sales in 1990. Walmart had redefined the lower-priced goods market, begun the serious race to the bottom, and infiltrated the rural neighborhoods where the Sears Catalog had been the lifesaver for so many families.

MAIL-ORDER BUSINESS

In 1993 Sears discontinued the catalog. The catalog business had shifted dramatically in the 1980’s because of the fanatical growth of retail stores in America. Why order it from a catalog when you can pop into a nearby store and get it today? The glut of retail, the cost of shipping, and the 7-10 business days shipping time was enough to kill the commodity catalog shopping that was the Sears catalog.

The only catalogs making it were for specialized companies selling specialized goods not found in stores (LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, REI, Signals, Orvis, etc.).

Then along came Amazon.

In 1994 Amazon launched their site. While there were a small handful of people who recognized the power of the Internet and what it could become (my buddy, Hans, actually pitched Borders Bookstore on the idea of selling online before Amazon launched and was laughed out of the room), I’ll forgive Sears for not seeing the potential.

Kinda …

Sears already had the mail-order business infrastructure set up. Sears already had the cataloging of hundreds of thousands of items done. Sears already had enough stores around the country at that time to set up a BOPIS system that even Amazon can’t yet match. Sears was part of a joint venture with IBM called Prodigy, so it was even involved in the Internet in its infancy!

This isn’t to say that Amazon wouldn’t have eventually cleaned their clock through better data, better customer-centric focus, and better operations, but just imagine if instead of trying to diversify, Sears was instead looking at new ways to do what they already did, only better and with the full use of the newest and latest technologies?

The lesson in all of this is simple.

First, understand fully and clearly who you are and what you do.

Second, don’t let anyone else do it better than you.

Sears let Walmart and Amazon do Sears better than Sears while Sears was busy trying to be someone else. Because of their size, it is a slow, painful death, but the choices that led to the bankruptcy were made in the 1980’s and 1990’s when Sears chose the wrong forks in the road and stayed on those paths too long.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS *I don’t know when it happened, probably in the 1980’s, but at some point Sears got away from their “well-trained staff.” Whether it was a cut in money for training programs, a shift in management away from training as a whole, a cut in payroll, or simply a belief that sales-training didn’t matter (a common thought in the 1980’s when everyone was selling at a high clip), Sears lost this competitive edge it held over the competition, especially Walmart.

PPS I did this exercise a couple times with my staff, but it was a question I asked of myself several times a year. “If I was going to open a store to compete with Toy House, what would I do?” When you ask and answer this question, you find the weaknesses in your model that can be exploited. You find where your competitive advantage is thinnest. Not only does this question help you find where competition could hurt you and shore those areas up before the competition strikes, it helps you constantly explore options for doing what you do better.

2 comments

  1. In my opinion, the identity problem for Sears started in the 1970’s. I worked for them during that time. The big competitor was Pennys. They were selling fashion at a lower price during this time and Sears couldn’t figure out to enter that field. Sears already had a good consumer base in clothing. They had lines that were Good, Better, Best and that worked well. Perhaps they should have held to this. However, they looked at Pennys and thought that they should do that too. It’s too bad that Sears could never figure out who they were. At this point in time, I’m trying to figure out the identity I need to have.

    • Phil Wrzesinski says:

      Thank you for that insight. A lot of people want to blame Sears’ demise on the last few years, but you’re right. Their problems started long ago.

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