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.

Melissa Campanelli’s The View From Here: Sears Experiments With a New Google Email Tool

The most interesting news of the week came to me via an email alert from Chad White, research director of Smith-Harmon, a Responsys company, and founder of the Retail Email Blog. The alert said Sears was testing a new Gmail functionality and, in the words of Chad, “was pretty cool stuff.” It directed me to his blog posting on the subject.

The most interesting news of the week came to me via an email alert from Chad White, research director of Smith-Harmon, a Responsys company, and founder of the Retail Email Blog. The alert said Sears was testing a new Gmail functionality and, in the words of Chad, “was pretty cool stuff.” It directed me to his blog posting on the subject.

Knowing that Chad is an authority on email — and a very smart guy — I decided to take a look.

Sears, according to Chad’s blog post, “will be wrapping up beta testing of a potential new Google offering called ‘Enhanced Email,’ which allows a form of browsing to occur within an email viewed within Gmail.”

In a limited test of the functionality last month, White wrote, “Sears was able to include seven ‘pages’ containing 20 best-selling products that its Gmail subscribers could browse using the navigation within the module without leaving the email.”

Here’s where it gets even cooler: When a subscriber hits the “next” link in the module’s navigation, White wrote, “the current set of products slides out of the box to the left and the next set of products slides in from the right in one smooth motion.”

Pretty cool, indeed.

For his blog post, White interviewed Ramki Srinivasan, the manager of email innovation at Sears, who said the set of products for the browsing module is displayed at the time of open, not the time of send, “which allows the information to be as current as possible.” He also said the test saw “higher opens, clicks and revenue per email,” but stressed that it’s too early to make any final assessments on the functionality.

In closing, White said Enhanced Email is just one more sign that the inboxes of the future will allow much more activity to occur within them. As a result, marketers will have to come up with “new ways of measuring email success and of thinking about email strategy, particularly the relationship between email and website landing pages,” White said.

Have any of you experimented with Enhanced Email? If so, would you like to tell us about it? If you haven’t yet tried it, are you interested in checking it out? Let me know by leaving a comment here.