Sears, aka “The World’s Slowest Liquidation Sale,” garnered a fair amount of attention recently with the announcement that they would open small stores featuring appliances and other home products called Home & Life. Perhaps having closed hundreds of stores over the past few years, the idea that Sears would “get off the mall” with new, more focused stores is interesting news and perhaps an early sign of resurrection? It’s neither.
Some of us may be old enough to remember that back in the ’90s and early 2000s Sears tried many iterations of exporting its signature home businesses into new formats that held the promise of being more competitive, convenient, customer relevant and sustainable. I’m one of those people. I was directly involved in many of them.
During my tenure—as well as before and after—we opened dozens of Sears Hardware Stores and acquired Orchard Supply Hardware. There were hundreds of so-called Dealer Stores that grew out of the original catalog business. At one point we operated more than 100 outlet stores. We tried various combinations of small-format tools, appliances and mattress stores. My team helped create and launch Sears Grand and The Great Indoors as large format off-the-mall stores where, among other things, Sears home brands were showcased in a more updated and convenient location. We also had the second-largest furniture business in the United States, which we tried to aggressively grow off mall. And, in a juicy bit of irony, those stores were called Homelife.
To varying degrees, and for various and sometimes complicated reasons, all of these efforts failed. While it may be interesting to debate what could have been done to assure better outcomes (spoiler alert: a lot), there are three powerful reasons a reboot of what is by now a very old strategy will almost certainly amount to zilch–plus or minus bupkis.
First, with the benefit of first-hand experience and a heaping spoonful of hindsight, I firmly believe that the one thing that could have saved Sears was to have created our own version of a home improvement warehouse or, even better, to have acquired Home Depot or Lowes at a time when Sears’ valuation would have made that realistic. Based on work we did during my tenure, it became increasingly obvious that the value in two businesses that drove most of Sears’ valuation (home appliances and tools) was migrating to these disruptive formats, and there was little we could do to stop it either with our mall-based format or through our powerful small stores. Without compelling participation in what is now by far the preferred way consumers buy these categories, Sears’ continued share loss—and long march to irrelevancy—was inevitable.
Second, what Sears is trying today is what I often refer to as attempting to be a slightly better version of mediocre.. Sure, some customers might find these more focused and better located stores a step up from the current Sears on-the-mall or online offering, but is that really delivering something truly relevant and remarkable? Of course not.
Third, even if these formats were able to gain some meaningful traction, Sears has little capacity to scale and has fallen so far below critical mass in many aspects of what is key to winning in today’s environment (marketing, sourcing and supply chain, most notably) that any positive momentum will be immaterial to any hoped for turnaround.
I, like so many other people, truly wish there were a better outcome for Sears. But as time goes on it seems increasingly obvious that the train left the station on those possibilities many, many years ago.
Today, sadly, all this thrashing is just lipstick on the pig. Dead brand walking.
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.