Sad news about Sears today. An American institution, they filed for bankruptcy in order to restructure the company. They will close 142 unprofitable stores near the end of the year. Liquidation sales at these stores are expected to begin shortly. This is in addition to the previously announced closure of 46 unprofitable stores that is expected to be completed by next month.
The press release says that “The Chapter 11 process will give Holdings the flexibility to strengthen its balance sheet, enabling the Company to accelerate its strategic transformation, continue right-sizing its operating model, and return to profitability.” I guess the question I’d ask is what the heck has taken so long? When I was a kid, the Sears catalog was a 500-page wish book. Everything from clothing to tools to appliances and damn near anything else was in the catalog or the store. At one point you could even buy a prefabricated house kit. They sold great appliances (built by Whirlpool) and even better tools (also built by others). They did very smart things like label grades of product “good” “better” and “best” using brand names. They were Amazon long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye.
So what happened? Well, technology did but that’s only part of the story. This is a perfect example of what can happen when any of us fail to recognize the fundamental changes happening in business – all business. Obviously, online commerce happened but Sears was in decline in the early 1990’s as Walmart took over the title of largest US retailer. Then the little wave became a tsunami, as consumers fundamentally changed their behavior, becoming more price sensitive, doing more research and shopping online, and the shift away from the mall sped up.
You might not remember this, but Sears was an investor in Prodigy, one of the original online services. They jumped out of the digital service in 1996, however. One can only wonder what might have been had they stuck with it and learned from it. Even though walled-garden services died as the internet grew, there was a lot to learn. Remember that Amazon didn’t begin to sell beyond books until around 2000. Why did they bail? To get back to what they knew best – retail (they also sold off their interest in brokerages and real estate companies they owned).
It would be easy to read this story as a triumph of e-commerce, or to reflect on the irony that Sears was a first-mover when it came to online shopping, with its proto-internet joint venture Prodigy. But even recently, Sears has been ahead of the curve in that area. According to Bloomberg, Lampert “showered” the online division with resources while the rest meleed over a shrinking pie.
Nor did competition with Amazon alone precipitate Sears’ decline. When sales and profits began to fade, in the mid-2000s, other big box retailers—particularly Walmart—were thriving. In 2011, the year Sears lost over $3.1 billion, Walmart made $17.1 billion.
Perhaps the might-have-been next Warren Buffett should have listened to the original, who told University of Kansas students in 2005, “Eddie is a very smart guy, but putting Kmart and Sears together is a tough hand. Turning around a retailer that has been slipping for a long time would be very difficult. Can you think of an example of a retailer that was successfully turned around?”
This is a story of a series of failures. It’s also a cautionary tale to any of us who live and work in these changing times. Brick and mortar stores still make up the vast majority of retail sales in this country yet the country’s largest retailers failed. Greed? Ignorance? Stupidity? What are your thoughts?