Sears Had Everything: How Retail Success Became Failure

From 1969 to 1972, the retail success story Sears used the catchy jingle, “Sears Has Everything!” Not anymore. It’s ironic that Sears, the mail order giant of the 19th century that dominated retailing throughout the 20th century could not survive the e-commerce age of the 21st century. After all, Sears created mail order marketing — which evolved into direct response marketing, right?

From 1969 to 1972, the retail success story Sears used the catchy jingle, “Sears Has Everything!” Not anymore.

It’s ironic that Sears, the mail order giant of the 19th century that dominated retailing throughout the 20th century could not survive the e-commerce age of the 21st century. After all, Sears created mail order marketing — which evolved into direct response marketing, right?

Trout and Ries had a term for this phenomenon in their landmark book, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind: “F.W.M.T.S.” — Forgot What Made Them Successful. In fact, Sears abandoned its catalog business in 1993.

As Shiv Gupta noted in his Target Marketing blog post on Tuesday:

“Sears was so busy picking up loose change off the floor, it forgot to look up at the bus barreling toward it.”

Sears really did have everything. At one point, you could buy a Sears house. “Sears Catalog Homes were catalog and kit houses sold primarily through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company, an American retailer. Sears reported that more than 70,000 of these homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940.” Wikipedia

But they also had the ability to capture the imagination of the American consumer. I have fond memories of going to the Sears store with my father and marveling at the range of merchandise: every tool imaginable, appliances, sporting goods, toys, clothing, jewelry — you name it; Sears had it.

Then there was the magical day that the Christmas Wish Book arrived in the mail and my siblings and I would spend hours with it, fine-tuning our wish list for Santa. Iconic Sears brands jumped off the pages of the catalog and into my imagination to become aspirational purchases: a Ted Williams baseball glove, a Silvertone guitar amp …

What happened?

Sears simply stopped innovating somewhere along the way. Here are some milestones:

  • “Founded shortly after the Civil War, the original Sears, Roebuck & Company built a catalog business that sold Americans the latest dresses, toys, build-it-yourself houses and even tombstones. The company was, in many ways, an early version of Amazon.” (NYTimes, 10/16/18)
  • In 1896, Sears benefited from a United States Postal Service program called Rural Free Delivery, which extended mail routes into rural areas. (NYTimes 10/15/18)
  • As more Americans began living in cities, Sears opened retail stores, the first in 1925 in Chicago.
  • “Later, its vast spread of brick-and-mortar stores positioned it in prime retail locations across the country. For years, it was the largest retailer in the United States, operating out of the tallest building in the world. At various points, it sold products like fishing tackle, tombstones, barber chairs, wigs and even a ‘Stradivarius model violin’ for $6.10.” (NYT 10/15/18)
  • Sears benefited from being a pioneer chain in a landscape of largely independent department stores. Along with JCPenney, it became a standard shopping mall anchor. Together, the two chains, along with Montgomery Ward, captured 43 percent of all department store sales by 1975 … (Then) Skyrocketing inflation meant low-price retailers, such as Target, Kmart and Walmart … lured new customers. The market became bifurcated, as prosperous upper-middle class shoppers turned to more luxurious traditional department stores, while bargain-seekers found lower prices at the discounters than at Sears. (Smithsonian 7/25/17)
  • Sears was major player in financial services in the 1980s, with Allstate Insurance and Dean Witter in the brand portfolio that included Kenmore and Craftsman. But by 1989, Sears was a shade of its former self. “It slashed prices on most of its inventory and in time shut its catalog operation, closed hundreds of stores and laid off tens of thousands of employees. Stores began carrying more outside brands and accepting nonstore credit cards to entice customers.” NYTimes 10/15/18

After abandoning the catalog business in 1993, Sears made a brief return to its roots by buying successful cataloger Lands’ End in 2002, only to spin it off in 2013.

In the end, Sears forgot what made it successful. It had everything. But Sears blew it.

Build a Preference Platform With Your Customers

Relentless advertising messages bombarding consumers across new and old channels, expanded competitive sets, and promotional periods like Black Friday and Cyber Monday have altered consumer buying patterns and, subsequently, marketing plans over the last couple of decades making customer preference a critical but elusive goal. Consumers now explore, search, compare, price and buy with relative predictability that can be charted in your own data as well as external data.

Your retail holiday strategy is well underway by now (or should be) but it’s never too late to fine tune your approach for today’s sales while building towards a stronger position for future sales. Syncing with your customers’ buying rhythms is one way to maximize your marketing dollars and year end results.

Relentless advertising messages bombarding consumers across new and old channels, expanded competitive sets, and promotional periods like Black Friday and Cyber Monday have altered consumer buying patterns and, subsequently, marketing plans over the last couple of decades making customer preference a critical but elusive goal. Consumers now explore, search, compare, price and buy with relative predictability that can be charted in your own data as well as external data.

Using the available info to surf and stoke the appropriate waves of consumer activity will help your marketing work harder and better as you get in sync with your consumers’ rhythms and create the framework that favors your selection over competitors.

Early Days = Exploration

The customers’ buying rhythm starts with an exploration phase that begins earlier and earlier in the calendar year. This year, as in recent years, holiday offerings appeared before Halloween candy was even off the shelf as retailers jockeyed to create and exploit demand. This is an ideal time to stir interest, create awareness and drive users to conversion focused landing pages. Even if consumers are not yet ready to buy, that consumer traffic can be used to retarget interested buyers later in the season or to build productive audience models. Keyword driven campaigns in search and social should be broader here as consumers have not yet narrowed their search. Watch the impression levels of certain keyword ad types for clues when consumer switch from “What will I buy?” to “Where can I get the best deal/pricing?”

Even during exploration phases much of the early marketing focus is conversion oriented, but marketers do this knowing that they can execute marketing messaging outside of the prime buying season. The goal in these early days is often to simultaneously use the same vehicles and channels with different messaging stratagems to both create a path to purchase and to close on the sale. That can be tricky to execute but is a low-cost strategy in a cost per click environment and may garner some early sales to justify the cost.

Even more important, this is the perfect time to touch base with your loyal customers and remind them of your relationship, emphasizing the point with great content, personalized recommendations and fantastic promos to further shore up their established preference. Be as generous as possible and give them an easy mechanism to share. Those early sales have the added benefit of providing fuel for product reviews and links that can help later sales. Many retailers simply get into sell, sell, sell mode early in the season and hit the same note all the way through the season. Long retail experience tells me that you need to build to the crescendo to get the maximum impact.

Later Days = Best Buying Options

If you are a retailer, your best selling approach later in the season depends on your preparation the last few months, the strength of your brand, and the uniqueness of your offerings. Consumers have myriad buying options and have been conditioned to look for and wait for deals. With free or low cost fast shipping options, they have the ability to wait for the ideal offer, promotion or sale and have no incentive to settle for a suboptimal deal unless you have created a strong platform for preference.

Amazon, of course, is the master of the preference platform built on great experiences, convenience, free shipping and breadth of product. Because consumers have so many options it may be difficult to create the urgency which is a hallmark of later sales messaging as shipping days dwindle. Of course, that does not hold true if you have a truly unique or unusual offering or if you have invested in the customer relationship that creates a preference platform. Email is a strong tactical advantage to current customers or interested consumers and should play a role in both early and later phases of the holiday.

Creating consumer preference should be a year-round goal encompassing prospect nurturing, customer retention communications and activities, loyalty programs, flawless execution, special offers or services and other tactics to bind customers, create positive associations and build trust. That warm and fuzzy feeling is more than nice; it translates into referrals and reviews and sharing and eventually translates into sales. Happy Holidays!

The Effectiveness of Pop-Up Shops and Partnerships

During a recent visit to New York City, I passed through Grand Central Station. There, I saw a hotbed of shopping activity: A section of Grand Central had been converted into a series of pop-up shops. What had happened to the retail bust?

Group of friends sitting outdoors with shopping bags - Several people holding smartphones and tablets - Concepts about lifestyle,shopping,technology and friendshipDuring a recent visit to New York City, I passed through Grand Central Station. There, I saw a hotbed of shopping activity: A section of Grand Central had been converted into a series of pop-up shops. What had happened to the retail bust?

The small pop-ups were doing a brisk business, selling everything from jewelry to men’s toiletries to candles. The shops were small, but had tons of personality. The experience was interactive and fun.

This was not an isolated incident. Pop-up shops are making their presence felt across the retail industry. The concept is not new — bazaars and flea markets have existed for many years. But lately, pop-up stores have become ubiquitous in everything from restaurants to rock festivals.

They are used by online retailers who are looking to experiment within the bricks-and-mortar space, and by chain stores who want to experiment with new locations and venues. Fashion retailer Nordstrom has launched pop-ups at music festivals that offer products and feature photo booths.

According to PopUp Republic, a service provider to the pop-up retail industry, pop-up shops have grown into a $50 billion industry and expected to grow further in 2017.

Why do retailers invest in pop-ups? Smaller retailers or Internet start-ups can launch a low-cost shop to test the waters without a significant time or money commitment. A new bricks-and-mortar retail storefront can cost tens of thousands of dollars to launch and often requires a lease of at least five years.

With a pop-up shop, the commitment can be a matter of months, with an investment of a few thousand dollars. And consumers seem to love it. They can touch and feel the merchandise and get to know the creator or store owner. The interaction often results in a loyal following. According to pop-up expert, The Lion’esque Group, one international foods and goods marketplace increased their e-commerce traffic by 300 percent through pop-ups.

Another growing retail concept is the store-within-a-store. Large retailers have been partnering with smaller businesses to set up areas within their stores for a differentiated experience for the shopper. Macy’s announced a partnership with beGlammed to provide at-home grooming and makeup services, and Neiman Marcus recently announced a partnership with Le Metier de Beaute to provide services such as manicures and blowouts at affordable prices.

Plus, JCPenney has had a partnership with Sephora for years, providing a cute area within the store where shoppers can purchase cosmetics and get quick makeovers. In its 1st Quarter Earnings call, JCPenney mentioned Sephora as one of the areas in the store with positive comp store sales and there are plans to add 16 new Sephora locations in June. These partnerships fulfill the goal of the retailer to pull in a different customer set, while also fulfilling the desire for a quick, differentiated experience for the customer.

For retailers who want to test the waters with a low-cost concept, partnering with another retailer or setting up a pop-up shop may be a viable solution. And for the customer, it provides a new, interactive shopping experience.

Next time you’re in Grand Central during the holiday season, check out the shopping arcade. It may be a nice place to pick up that unique gift or chat with a person who makes hand knit scarves by hand.

Note: The views expressed in this blog are those of the blogger and not necessarily of Synchrony Financial.

The Yin and Yang of Dealing with Good and Lousy Customers

For years I used to quote the statistic that a satisfied customer will tell three people, while an unhappy customer will tell 11 people. This was B.I. (before the Internet).

Today, an unhappy customer can go online and reach tens of millions of people around the world with an angry message.

One of the most fascinating figures in modern retailing is Bradbury H. (Brad) Anderson, a Northwestern Seminary dropout who went to work for a small midwestern music store called Sound Music. Over the years, Anderson turned the little shop into electronics behemoth Best Buy, with 1,400 stores across the United States and Canada, $45 billion in sales and 155,000 full- and part-time employees.

The corporate philosophy of most giant retailers is to drive every possible consumer into the store with TV advertising, cents-off coupons, mail shots, special newspaper offers and all the other bells and whistles of marketing wizardry.

But Anderson saw that many of these giants were performing poorly.

Several years ago in analyzing Best Buy’s customer file, he discovered that of the 500 million customer visits a year, 20 percent—or 100 million—were unprofitable.

So he hired on as a consultant Columbia Business School Professor Larry Selden, author of “Angel Customers and Demon Customers: Discover Which Is Which and Turbo-Charge Your Stock.”

It was Selden who came up with the revolutionary theory that a company is not a portfolio of product lines, but rather a portfolio of customers.

Direct marketers have operated on that premise since the 1920s.

Selden divides customers into “angels” and “devils.” Angels are the desirable customers who buy stuff and keep it—the kind of folks worth doing business with.

“The devils are its worst customers,” writes Gary McWilliams in his Wall Street Journal account of Best Buy. “They buy products, apply for rebates, return the purchases, then buy them back at returned-merchandise discounts. They load up on ‘loss leaders,’ severely discounted merchandise designed to boost store traffic, then flip the goods at a profit on eBay. They slap down rock-bottom price quotes from Web sites and demand that Best Buy make good on its lowest-price pledge.”

As with direct marketers, Best Buy carefully analyzes its customer base, spending time and money to lure the angels into the store and eliminate promotional efforts to the devils. It is also enforcing a 15 percent restocking fee for bad actors.

Unlike direct marketers, Best Buy cannot keep these sleaze balls out of its stores. But it can make life difficult for them while, at the same time, giving excellent service to its good customers.

On the other hand, when you have 155,000 employees, not all are smooth schmoozers or judges of people and absolutely “go by the book.” The result, nice folks can have miserable customer experiences and tell the world.

Satisfied Customers vs. Angry Customers
For years I used to quote the statistic that a satisfied customer will tell three people, while an unhappy customer will tell 11 people. This was B.I. (before the Internet).

Today, an unhappy customer can go online and reach tens of millions of people around the world with an angry message.

What triggered this story was the following e-mail forwarded to me last week by a long-time colleague that directly relates to Brad Anderson’s customer angels-and-devils policy.

Dear friends:

I received several copies of this email. My own take on dealing with retailers like this: Use a credit card.

BEST BUY, MY FOOT
Best Buy has some bad policies…. Normally, I would not share this with others. However, since this could happen to you or your friends, I decided to share it. If you purchase something from Wal-Mart, Sears etc. and you return the item with the receipt they will give you your money back if you paid cash, or credit your account if paid by plastic.

Well, I purchased a GPS for my car, a Tom Tom XL.S from ‘Best Buy’. They have a policy that it must be returned within 14 days for a refund!

So after 4 days I returned it in the original box with all the items in the box, with paper work and cords all wrapped in the plastic. Just as I received it, including the receipt.

I explained to the lady at the return desk I did not like the way it could not find store names. The lady at the refund desk said there is a 15% restock fee for items returned. I said no one told me that. I said how much would that be. She said it goes by the price of the item. It will be $45 for you. I said, all you’re going to do is walk over and place it back on the shelf then charge me $45 of my money for restocking? She said that’s the store policy. I said if more people were aware of it they would not buy anything here! If I bought a $2,000 computer or TV and returned it I would be charged a $300 restock fee? She said yes, 15%.

I said OK, just give me my money minus the restock fee.

She said since the item is over $200, she can’t give me my money back!!!

Corporate has to and they will mail you a check in 7 to ten days. I said ‘WHAT?!’

It’s my money! I paid in cash! I want to buy a different brand. Now I have to wait 7 to 10 days. She said the policy is on the back of the receipt.

I said, Do you read the front or back of your receipt? She said well, the front! I said so do I. I want to talk to the manager!

So the manager comes over, I explained everything to him, and he said, Well, sir, they should have told you about the policy when you got the item. I said, No one has ever told me about the check refund or restock fee, whenever I bought items from computers to TVs from Best Buy. The only thing they ever discussed was the worthless extended warranty program. He said, Well, I can give you the corporate phone number.

I called corporate. The guy said, well, I’m not supposed to do this but I can give you a $45 gift card and you can use it at Best Buy. I told him if I bought something and returned it, you would charge me a restock fee on the item and then send me a check for the remaining $3. You can keep your gift card, I’m never shopping in Best Buy ever again, and if I would of been smart, I would of charged the whole thing on my credit card! Then I could have canceled the transaction.

I would of gotten all my money back including your stupid fees! He didn’t say a word!

I informed him that I was going to e-mail my friends and give them a heads up on this store’s policy, as they don’t tell you about all the little caveats.

So please pass this on. It may save your friends from having a bad experience of shopping at Best Buy

It’s true! read it for yourself!!

Takeaways to Consider

  • As a result of this letter, I will think twice about ever shopping at Best Buy.
  • If this letter was forwarded—and re-forwarded—around the world, tens of thousands of wary prospects will drive right past Best Buy make a point of shopping at Wal-Mart, Target or Radio Shack.
  • It is assumed that you analyze your customers every which way to Sunday. The simplest formula in the direct marketing community is recency-frequency-monetary value (RFM). (Other highly sophisticated systems are available and should be looked into.)
  • Divide customers into quintiles, with the top quintile being your caviar and cream.
  • The bottom quintile is very likely costing you money.
  • The object of marketing is to move customers in the second quintile into the first quintile, the third quintile customers into the second quintile and so on.
  • In direct marketing, it is relatively easy to control the bottom quintile by marketing to it with less frequency, but keeping the addresses current so you can make money off of list rentals.
  • In retail, the bottom quintile is a nightmare. It’s tough to keep undesirable customers out of stores. One possibility is to divide the bottom quintile into its own quintile with the bottom two-fifths—the serial returners and shysters whom you do not want as customers—dealt with firmly.
  • This must be handled with great delicacy. Otherwise consumer activist groups can get on your case and create a flurry of poor publicity.
  • When you go to www.bestbuysux.org, you will find that Best Buy owns it and has turned it into a sales pitch for its products and services.
  • You may want to own the following URLs: www.[YourCompanyName]sucks.org and www.[YourCompanyName]sux.org and follow Best Buy’s example.
  • It used to be axiomatic that a happy customer will tell three people; an unhappy customer will tell 11 others. Today, with the Internet, an unhappy customer can tell the entire world.