Woe is Sears

Sears probably isn’t going to be around much longer; it’s a business that’s been sliding steadily downhill for years. It’s now in what appear to be its final death throes, selling off its heritage and good name: it’s sold the Craftsman brand and is looking for buyers for Diehard and Kenmore, just so it can make the rent payments. For years the company had a near-monopoly on the retail trade in large swaths of America and it’s spent the past 30 years failing to adjust to the new reality. Its customers, in turn, have learned to enjoy choice, style, selection, quality, and good prices – none of them part of the Sears arsenal then or now.

Sears: where America used to shop

The Curmudgeon grew up with Sears: he recalls that awful red and white shirt his parents let him pick at Sears to wear to his brother’s bar mitzvah, his first weight set, the underwear that lasted forever because there was nothing approaching a natural fabric in it. He also recalls walking through the Sears store down the road, a little kid with the handle of a gallon can of paint digging into his soft hand. And the caramel popcorn – oh, the caramel popcorn! He also remembers that when he bought his first house his father, by then living in California, wanted to buy his son a refrigerator as a house-warming gift and said he would send him his Sears credit card in the mail so his son could make the purchase.

“But dad, it’ll cost twice as much if I buy it at Sears,” The Curmudgeon protested.

“That’s okay, son, we know it’ll be a good refrigerator.”

But Sears has moved from its golden years into the twilight of its life. Not too long ago the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article describing another aspect of Sears’ struggles, telling the tale of a woman who had to engage in protracted negotiations with the company to get repairs on her refrigerator – a refrigerator for which she had purchased a $500 service contract from Sears.

If there was one thing you could always count on with Sears it was that it stood behind its products, as anyone who’s ever returned a 20-year-old Craftsman drill because it stopped working and got a new one to replace it for no charge can certainly attest.

But those days are long gone, and the title of this Inquirer article was “Memo to Sears: Work on the service team, will ya?”

Not to beat a dead horse when it’s already suffered enough, but The Curmudgeon feels her pain.

A few years after he moved to New Jersey The Curmudgeon found himself with a clothes dryer in need of repair and no idea of where to turn for help. When he learned that Sears had gone into the appliance repair business that sounded promising: even though he knew he would probably end up paying more than he should, he figured that Sears was, if nothing else, a reliable company and that if the cost of the repairs was more than it should be at least the repairs would be done right. So decided, he sent an email explaining his problem and seeking to set up an appointment for a repairman to come to his home.

Sears responded promptly, offering a repair date – three weeks away.

The Curmudgeon was amazed. Could they be serious?

He wasn’t interested in finding out.

He turned instead to the yellow pages and found someone else. The service technician came the next day and ten years later the dryer is working as well as ever.

The same, alas, cannot be said of Sears. It never adjusted to the new reality, and now, it’s counting the days until the real estate under its stores is more valuable than the business conducted in those stores. When that day comes it will contact one of those companies that liquidates failed retailers and it will join the long list of retailers people assumed would be around forever but then weren’t, like Woolworth’s, Borders, Blockbuster, CompUSA, the Sports Authority, Circuit City, and many others. And when it happens to Sears, too, and it finally closes its doors for good, we’ll have one more example of a once-reliable company and long-trusted name that just couldn’t cut it anymore.

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