Sears is one of the most iconic brands in American history. The retailer used to be synonymous with catalog ordering and, later, retail malls. Starting in 1888 with the first catalog, generations of Americans grew up wearing Sears clothes, furnishing their homes with Sears furniture and appliances, and swinging tools with the Craftsman label.
Over the decades, Sears transformed the way Americans lived. It became cheaper and easier to buy household necessities, rather than make them, largely thanks to Sears. When malls started being built, communities sprung up around them. In nearly every big retail complex, Sears was the anchor … becoming the country’s biggest employer.
Today, though, Sears locations are relative ghost towns. Retailers are starving, and it’s not really getting any better. Stores are being shuttered across the country, and there doesn’t seem to be any solution in sight.
The bleed started with big-box discount stores like Walmart and Target. Lower prices and more products set a standard Sears just couldn’t compete with. As other department stores like Dillard’s and Macy’s established themselves for the higher-end market, Sears continued to try to be the go-to store for the middle-class suburbanite. Over the years, that worked less and less.
Then came the second blow: Home improvement stores. Home Depot and Lowes started getting a lot of the tool and appliance business. It may have been a sign of more change to come when Home Depot replaced Sears on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Then came Amazon.
In one of the bitterest ironies of Sears’ long, dark slide, the company that was built on catalog ordering began losing market share to a company offering online ordering. Sears was now the store with all the overhead, and Amazon had all the variety and prices consumers wanted.
As more Americans were shopping online, fewer were even going to the mall. And that included younger people. For at least two generations, Sears had depended on teenagers hanging out at the mall to become customers as they reached adulthood, bought houses and started having kids. That worked, for a time. But the Millennial generation has other things to do with their time than hang out at the mall.
So, with the older generations buying more online, and the younger generations beginning to ignore the mall essentially altogether, Sears needed a big win. Instead, the company merged with another failing retailer: Kmart. All that did was drag Sears down further.
Still, the company failed to understand what was happening, to recognize the shifting market and make changes to put their brand back into a place of prominence. Other department store brands had some missteps trying the very same thing, but they managed to right the ship. Sears has not … and now it may be too late.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5W Public Relations