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Lessons learned: What Sears can teach us

August 6/13, 2018: Volume 34, Issue 4

By Tom Jennings

It was recently announced that Sears is closing another group of underperforming stores, including one not far from my home. As a longtime Craftsman tool junkie, I’m sorry to see this happen. But, as a retail merchandising junkie, who could be surprised? Rather than simply dismissing these announcements, there are a great many reasons flooring retailers need to be paying close attention to what’s been happening to Sears. The following are prominent lessons.

A business’ reputation only lasts so long. My parents and grandparents traded at Sears extensively. They believed in the value and quality offered. They traded there without really questioning either attribute. My generation began to have its doubts as Sears’ offerings seemed to get less exceptional while their competitors got better. My kids’ generation barely recognizes that Sears exists.

Lesson: Whether you’ve been in business 10, 20, or in Sears’ case, over 100 years—you have to be fresh today to be relevant. If you’re not changing as fast as your market, you’re simply having the world’s longest going-out-of-business sale.

Sears once was the king of private brands. I saw an article not long ago that stated a generation ago, one in three homes in the U.S. had at least one Kenmore appliance. Craftsman Tools had a lifetime replacement warranty long before it was common. Customers desired these brands and bought them in huge volume. While they were all priced competitively, they were not necessarily the cheapest options. They were all exclusive to Sears. Then they started to erode their own value story. Today, you can buy a Whirlpool appliance alongside of a Kenmore. You can buy a Dewalt drill alongside a Craftsman. Why? Over the past decade, this has been systematic suicide for all that Sears once stood for.

Lesson: Most flooring retailers today have brands that are exclusive to them through various distribution channels. Are you putting these offerings up on a pedestal in your store? Or, are they mixed in with non-exclusive displays, merely serving to confuse the customer?

Sears allowed their stores to become very tired and generic looking. Customers today have become used to a show. They expect to see the latest products shown in an inviting atmosphere. Take a good look at everything from dramatic lighting, to the type of music played, to the types of signage displayed at truly modern stores. My closest Sears store has exposed fluorescent light fixtures, generic flooring that has seen better days, a well-worn front entry and no sound system at all. Good retailing evokes customer emotions and actions. There is absolutely nothing remarkable here, just a bunch of merchandise for sale.

Lesson: I just described a majority of flooring stores in the country. Is yours one of them?

Do you remember when Sears dominated the catalog business? When I was young, it was a happy day at our house when the new catalog came. When was the last time you heard of someone bragging about a Sears app on their smartphone? The moral of the Sears story is in the customers’ eyes, you must stand for something to be relevant. For too long Sears has been neither cheap enough to seem cheap, nor good enough to seem good. Remember that past laurels all have an expiration date.

Tom Jennings is vice president of professional development for the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA). Jennings, a retail sales training guru, has served in various capacities within the WFCA.