Can anything save Sears?

By Tom Dougherty

Saving Sears. Too late? Probably.


saving SearsWho is Sears and who is saving Sears? What IS the Sears brand? What does it represent? Where do we place the Sears brand and do we ever think of it as a destination? These are brand questions because they reflect back on the personality of the brand. Is saving Sears even a thought?

If a brand can be seen as a human being, then it has attributes, weaknesses, characteristics and personality.

Sears represents a case study in branding failure. It has built its business at the expense of its brand for far too long. It did not define the Sears brand in terms of the changing customer. Or if it did, it did not reflect that understanding in their stores, merchandising or locations.

Shoppers have changed but Sears has not. Which is why it recently filed for bankruptcy. There was no effort at saving Sears in marketing and operations. Its branding failure is evident in everything, including sales. Sears could be saved (and we have plenty of ideas as to how to do that), but to all appearances, it is a floundering giant. (You can read a detailed study of the retail market here.)

What happened and is anyone saving Sears today?

saving searsWhen stating Sears invests too heavily in the business and are lax about the brand, we know we are open to some intense criticism. But success, when taken for granted (as Sears enjoyed for decades), can cause a company to mistake current success as a given or a sign they are headed for long-term rewards.

Consider how the Sears business environment has changed over the years and how the customer has changed.

Sears once owned a large segment of the automotive repair business. Today, customers rely more heavily on dealerships for warranty maintenance. And, much to the displeasure of the Sears auto repair shops, cars have become more reliable. They no longer require tune-ups and they seem to run for 100K miles without a problem. Even an oil change no longer drives the repair business. The Jiffy Lubes of the world have seen to that.

There was also a time when families waited in anticipation of the Sears catalog. It was Amazon before the online retail giant was even a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye. Sears right dumped it (although probably too early) but its current website is no replacement. Neither is its app. As a result, Sears feels old fashioned. And not in a good way. It holds onto a model that died years ago.

Saving Sears? Change with the consumer

Sadly, the Sears brand can’t even claim that any longer. This is just another example of Sears not changing with the times. At one time, they were in the position to own a large part of the current online shopping segment. (Read about the changing consumer here.)

Effectively Manage Messaging Saving SearsSears also used to be a main source of tires sales. No more. Saving Sears means rekindling its profit centers by making them different and better. Today, Goodyear, Firestone and discount retailers own that market and use their own retail locations to sell tires. They do it better and cheaper.

There was also a time when many shopped for paint at Sears. No more. Sherwin-Williams or the home improvement big boxes, such as Home Depot or Loews, has taken on that role. Behr has replaced Weatherbeater as the store brand of choice and top of mind recall. Maybe saving Sears means revitalizing their legacy brands?

Speaking of Home Depot, the home improvement stores have now become the top-of-mind destination for tools. Craftsman, still a respected brand, is no longer the dominant draw. For one, Craftsman can now be purchased at Lowe’s Home Improvement. Sears no longer has exclusivity.

New and established brand names such as Stanley, Porter Cable, Dewalt and Rigid now have preference. Sears is no longer the hardware destination of choice.

There was a time when the Sears brand owned household appliances. Time was they only sold their own private label brand, Kenmore. Competition forced them to add major brand labels such as Whirlpool and Maytag to their offering, but it was too little too late. Habits and preference had changed and Lowes, Home Depot and the HR Greggs of the world have laid claim to that business as well.

At one time, Sears was even a shop of choice for clothing. Now, they compete for the crumbs on the floor. Saving Sears means a complete rebranding.

Life Magazine Syndrome

What you understand when you look at Sears is that they suffered from the LIFE magazine syndrome: the fall of the generalist and the added value of the specialist. Sears was the mall of its day.

Research Analysis saving SearsIn many ways, Kmart, the sister problem to the larger one, suffers from the very same malady. Sears is an outdated model with no current reason to be important.

In fact, most retailers today, Target and Macy’s included, do not really understand their brands in a way that would ensure success in stealing share. Once again, fixing the problem is dependent on the probability of finding the real problem.

Sears has equities to build on. Understanding these values and intensities requires the kind of anthropological brand process we do because it lays bare, not just usage and attitudes, but beliefs and values. (Read more about Sears and Kmart.)

One should never throw out the baby with the bath water but there is a lot of bath water to be chucked when it comes to Sears. Identifying the core brand and the customer it needs to influence, that is the task at hand.