Sears is now in bankruptcy. Creditors are pushing for a sale of its assets because they view the holdings of the company as more valuable than its worth as a going concern. Why this ignominious end? The reasons for the company’s decline are many and varied.

The rise of Wal Mart, Amazon, and Target, among other retailers as well as the growing desire to shop over the internet all contributed. I suspect that one fact not as frequently mentioned is how the shopping experience deteriorated over the years.
Consider some facts about Sears:

  • In the 1980s, it was the massive retailer in the US and, surprising to me, the largest private employer in the country.
  • The company innovated in many ways. Perhaps its earliest innovation was the mail-order catalog, which made it much easier for farmers and others living outside of cities to buy products ranging from watches, clothing all the way to prefabricated houses. It also innovated by making consumer credit more readily available.
  • Along the way, it created some powerhouse brands such as Craftsman and Kenmore.

Growing up in North Carolina, I fondly remember visiting Sears stores during the 60s and 70s and thinking they were the best places to go. The stores were clean, the products displayed well, and there was usually a friendly person there to help. During the holiday seasons, I remember the stores as being very special.

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This older perception of Sears contrasts with my last experience at a Sears store (about three years ago). The inventory selection was not significant. The store was not very clean, and the general appearance was a bit shopworn. On this visit, I was looking for a Craftsman tool, which I could not find. Finding someone to help was difficult, and the person who finally helped me was not knowledgeable. In the words of New York Times bestselling author Grant Cardone, “Right now, it’s easier to steal something from Sears than to buy something,………..The lack of customer service is putting Sears in big trouble.”

Would a better customer experience have saved Sears? In the absence of investments in employee training, improved store appearance, better inventory selection, and a strong internet presence, probably not. Having a service experience that customers talk positively about could have created some time and flexibility for management to come up with new options for Sears. No matter whether shoppers come into a store or buy online, they want a good experience. Even in the business-to-business world where we work, the “retail” experience is becoming more critical.

Companies that are selling construction, agricultural and other equipment are paying more attention to the experience. After all, managers in these companies realize that it takes a great product and an excellent service to be successful in the long run.

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