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Recently Sears has been in the business press for all the wrong reasons. Some analysts are forecasting the company will fold completely and cease to exist by 2017, and executives have taken the unprecedented step of respond directly to criticism via the corporate blog. Once the largest department store in America, Sears is now struggling to remain relevant. 

I’ve read the coverage with mixed emotions. As a consumer of a certain age, it’s sad to see another vestige from my childhood disappear. I dog-eared pages in the Sears Wishbook for Santa, visited the store for back to school clothes and remember spending my hard earned babysitting money on a small TV in the Sears electronics department.

But there’s another dimension complicating my feelings around Sears and their recent challenges: I used to work there.

I joined Sears Holdings Company, parent company to Sears, Kmart and (at the time) Land’s End, as a product manager for their e-commerce division. I managed payment and post-order, which covered essentially everything from the time a customer entered their credit card information through shipping and delivery of the items. While I can’t speak for everyone, the team I worked with was energized by the vision of transforming Sears for the 21st century.

But there were challenges, many of which have been widely reported. Today, as a member of the Bigcommerce team, I appreciate what’s happening with Sears as an interesting and important example of how vulnerable your business can become — no matter the size, brand or history. I hope some of the lessons I learned can help your own store succeed.

Focus, focus and then focus some more

Sears sought to evolve their business by building a large online marketplace to rival Amazon. They partnered with small businesses and amassed a huge catalog of products. But in doing so lost sight of what made them successful. Popular, and profitable, brands like Craftsman and Kenmore got lost in the mix. If you’re planning to expand in 2014, look at the products your customers know and love. Do your additions make sense? Will they build on your success or distract shoppers from what they’re looking for?

Consistency matters

Despite a huge number of stores and a complex point-of-sale system architecture, Sears was an early pioneer in the omni-channel experience. Their focus on the logistics of the pick-up-in-store experience remains one of the best in the industry and was later replicated by other big box competitors. The devil, however, was in the details. For example, take coupons. Often the user saw a promotion in the store that they hadn’t applied towards their online purchase. They left the store disappointed, despite the convenience provided with the in-store pickup. If you are coordinating sales between various channels, whether brick-and-mortar, social media or multiple sites, regularly do a quick review and ensure your messaging is the consistent across the board. It can save you time and customer service headaches down the road.

Know thy customer

Shortly before leaving Sears I spent time with the customer service call center team. As the company focused on building out a massive online marketplace, many of the shoppers I spoke with found online shopping a challenging experience already. We were building the business from the top down, but maybe it should have been from the bottom up. Take the time to talk to the users coming to your site. Understand their preferences, acknowledge their concerns and use what you’ve heard to build a site to speak to their needs. Your conversion rate will thank you for it.

Have you learned any valuable small business lessons from working at a big corporation? Please share in them in comments, we’d love to hear about your insights.

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  • Hey Cindy! Thanks for the comment.

    I think most of us who grew up shopping at Sears felt the same way (an Allen wrench and jeans and a dust ruffle….all at once!!). It was a big part of their brand from day one when they published the old catalog. Where they’ve struggled – again, totally just my opinion – is in bringing that experience online. Their selection of products has mushroomed so when you’re looking for the Wrangler jeans or the pan you have to surf through a lot of less relevant listings. Pricing may be all over the map because it’s from different sellers, etc. The experience really suffers and that impacts the brand….which impacts your traffic…..which impacts your brand…..

    Not saying it’s a bad model per se but requires a ton of discipline to manage and user research to ensure you’re selling what they want to buy.

    Worth mentioning that a lot of folks, me included, are rooting for them. But small merchants – especially those selling, for example, opera bracelets! – have the opportunity to really target the buyer, do some great content marketing via blog, have an easier time managing returns, etc. Although an opera bracelet department store may not be a bad idea…. :)

  • Wow this was news to me… I choose Sears first when mall shopping… I know they will absolutely have what I want/need and the price will be perfectly reasonable. I don’t have to visit 5 different stores to get sneakers, clothes for a business meeting, a winter coat, vacuum bags, a new handbag, slippers, fun jewelry and a new frying pan too. I’m all for the one stop shop. Wonder what my customers think… maybe I should become the opera department store…

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