Sears: this is how you go belly up

sinking ship

The parent company of Sears announced last week that Chairman Edward Lampert would shortly take over as chief executive, succeeding Louis D’Ambrosio, who is leaving for health reasons.

Lampert apparently has enjoyed a successful career: the Associated Press describes him as a hedge fund billionaire.

However, turning around Sears, which along with Kmart is under the umbrella of the Sears Holding Corporation, would appear to be a task of herculean proportions. The company has struggled mightily in recent years and, if personal experience is any indication, appears fully committed to foundering on the shoals of incompetence.

Case in point: About 10 days before Christmas, I decided to get my wife a recumbent bicycle as an early Christmas present. Recumbent bikes allow the user to recline while riding in place and are good good for cross-training.

Understanding that these items take time to put together, and that there’s no guarantee one would be in stock at a nearby store, my wife began scouring the Web.

After a bit of research, she found just the recumbent bike she wanted at Sears. Best of all, it was located at the nearest of the three Sears stores in our area, just a couple of miles away. My wife phoned the store and the Sears’ representative assured her that the company computer showed there was indeed one of the desired models in stock.

I set off a short while later to pick it up, and things proceeded to deteriorate quickly. When I got to the store I had to wait for several minutes before I was able to track down a salesperson in the fitness area.

I proceeded to tell him what I wanted. He looked it up on the computer, saw that there was one bike in stock and called a stock person to bring it out. A few minutes later he got a return call saying the store was out of that model.

Perplexed, I told the salesman that my wife had just called the store within the past half hour and was told that there was a bike on the premises, and that the Sears representative had supposedly personally checked to make sure there was indeed one left.

He agreed to go back to the stockroom. During the intervening minutes, I tried out all the different recumbent chairs on display, than watched as a husband and wife wandered about as their young children bickered while very LOUDLY playing the foosball table on display.

After 15 minutes he returned apologetically and said the store was indeed out of the model I was seeking. I asked why my wife had been told differently; he said he didn’t know.

I called my wife and explained the bad news. I described other models on hand, but nothing fit the bill. An attempt to purchase the floor model failed because “Sears doesn’t do that unless the model is being discontinued,” I was told.

The salesperson offered at this point to call a second store in the area (the third area store is a franchise and appears to be treated as some sort of rogue operator) to see if the model in question was available.

The salesman attempted to reach someone at the sister store for five minutes but couldn’t get anyone at that location to pick up the phone. He checked his computer and said it appeared there was a recumbent bike in the model we were seeking available at the other store.

Of course, this was the same thing my wife had been told the first time. I thanked him and decided to give it a try anyway. The store, after all, was only half an hour away.

Upon arrival I explained my purpose. The saleswoman checked her computer, which showed one recumbent bike in the model I was seeking. She disappeared into the bowels of the store, only to return a few minutes later stating the store did not have the model in question.

Suppressing a desire kick over the entire line of recumbent bikes, I asked the purpose of a computer system that appeared to provide only incorrect information. No response.

I called my wife and explained the situation. The next shipment was at least a week away, and given the overall level of competence shown so far, I was leery given that Christmas was right around the corner. My wife, no shrinking violet, then asked to speak to the section manager.

After a few minutes, the manager agreed to go look in the inventory area again. As I waited I began to count the number of Sears’ sales signs placed on high-ticket items that read: “This is how YOU GIFT!” but lost track amid my irritation.

After a big the manager returned with word that a bike had been discovered. It had been left in the loading dock after being returned unopened.

Happy ending, right? Bike gets taken home, bike gets assembled, wife gets to use bike, and Sears’ fiasco is blissfully forgotten, right?

Sadly, no.

I bought the bike, took it home and, after an hour of Allen wrenches, screwdrivers and scraped knuckles, my wife was ready to give it a whirl, figuratively speaking.

And to our chagrin we promptly discovered the bike’s electronic monitor didn’t work, making it impossible to gauge distance and speed, or set different electronic workout levels.

My wife, unlike myself, buys warranties for just such instances. Unfortunately, Sears has just one repairman for a metro area of more than 400,000 people. When we called Sears, we were told it would take at least three weeks before the repairman could make it out to our house to simply look at the problem.

My thought: “What’s the point of offering a warranty if you can’t get to your customers any sooner than three weeks?”

My wife used the bike as it was for a week but finally became frustrated by the inability to determine distance and speed, or to implement different electronic workout programs. At that point, a call to Sears revealed that the store where the purchase was made had just received a similar bike. If I bring the old one out, they will swap it for the new one, we’re told.

So I disassembled the old bike, wedged the pieces in my car and headed back the 20-plus miles to Sears. They loaded me up with a new bike and away I went. On the plus side, the bike went together more quickly, given my previous experience.

When the second bike was assembled my wife got on and … promptly discovered there was no resistance when peddling. It was like riding a regular bicycle with the chain off. Useless, in other words.

At this point I was ready to go and find some hooch and crawl into a corner.

The Missus, being a bit more proactive, called Sears up at this point and gave them an articulate non-profane version of “Are you &^%$#@ kidding me?!?”

Sears, of course, had no answers for the apparent inherent crappiness of its products, nor did it seem all that interested in supplying answers. As though I needed more verification, I was again reminded of why shopping at Sears is like a big ol’ crap shoot (in more ways than one).

Staring at the useless bike, I pondered scrawling “Caveat Emptor” in spray paint across a Sears’ storefront – any Sears’ storefront – when I realized I would probably have to disassemble and, yes, assemble yet another bike.

My wife, however, had decided by now that enough was enough, and contacted a local sporting goods store. It didn’t have the same model, but something similar.

In addition, its employees went out of their way to be accommodating and told my wife that should there be a problem, they would come out immediately to identify and, if possible, fix it, free of charge. This, despite the fact that they don’t offer a warranty.

Talk about a no-brainer.

The Sears’ experience ended with one last trip to drop off the second malingering bike and to obtain a refund. I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends as I pulled away from the boys at the loading area for the final time. We’d been through so much together – none of it good.

I managed to assemble the third bike in near-record time. And, best of all, it worked perfectly. My wife was happy because it operated per the instructions. I was happy, if for no other reason than it appeared my career in bike assembly was at an end. The local sporting goods store was happy to have made a sale and also to have helped out someone in dire need of a competent retail experience.

And Sears, I’m sure, is oblivious to the difficulty and ill-will created by the wasted time, lack of communication, shoddy products and overall distasteful experience.

I am seemingly not the only one with an issue with Sears. Type “Sears sucks” (without quotation marks) into an Internet search engine and you get “about 1,760,000 results,” according to Google.

A well-used analogy when describing attempts to change the course of a struggling corporate behemoth is that it’s akin to trying to turn a battleship. In Sears’ case, changing direction is compounded by the fact that one must account for the notion that said battleship is already underwater and hurtling headlong toward the ocean floor.

Good luck, Mr. Lampert; you’re going to need it in spades.

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7 thoughts on “Sears: this is how you go belly up

  1. Been there — many times — at our local Sears. This always had been a dependable, “always there for you” business that had stood the test of time going back to at least the 1930s in our family. (Don’t know if it’s true but I remember my father telling me that, at one time, even pages torn from Sears catalogs were utilized — in outhouses in rural America.) So sad to see what this mighty mercantile giant has become. When I learned a few years ago that Sears had been bought by K-Mart I knew that they were headed on a dowlward slope and would never be the same.

    You showed admirable tenacity and restraint (plus much love for your wife) in your dealings with both Sears stores. Like your wife, I know that I would have reacted with similar “articulate, non-profane” comments — words that I couldn’t believe were floating around in my memory banks, just waiting to be used in such a moment of utter desperation.

    When businesses began to offer customers extended warranty contracts on small and large appliances I sensed that something was not quite right and that we were in deep trouble as a manufacturing nation. I always refused to purchase any such warranties. My reply to the salesman, or to the cashier, was always something similar to: “If your company stood behind this product and it is being sold in perfect working condition with a reasonable expectation of normal customer use (meaning a minimum of 15 to 20 years), then I wouldn’t need to buy any extra assurances from your company. You know what you can do with your extended warranty!”

    Another timely situation facing the American manufacturing and particularly, our telecommunications customer service industries, is the reality of outsourcing to foreign countries.
    But that is a subject for another day….

    • Sad, but true. And I thought the same thing when Sears bought Kmart, that this can’t be a good sign.

      I usually avoid warranties because I’ve always seen them as scams, a way to fleece more money from customers when, as you said, they ought to stand behind their products in the first place. But my wife is wiser than myself and knows that without the warranty, you’re out of luck these days if something breaks after a year, which happens all too often with computers, dishwashers, washing machines, etc.

      Don’t even get me started on outsourcing of customer service. I have no problem having people in other countries handle such tasks, but it does a company absolutely no good, and in fact hurts them, if the person who is supposed to be handling customer relations can’t communicate clearly enough with the customer to be understood. There may be an initial cost savings, but in the long run it’s going to be far more expensive in terms of lost business and bad word-of-mouth advertising.

      Thank you for your note.

  2. Battleships turn far more easily and have minuscule destructive powers when compared with the mammoth operations of the Marts of today.

    Dad has always hated Sears and can repeat chapter and verse the nature of multiple iterations of products that are substituted interchangeably to deceive the customer, among other complaints.

    When considering your experience I find some sympathy for the employee at the store level. Under paid with no hope of any career path many are seeking any work after layoffs and downsizing from previous employers.

    Your conclusion, that the local specialty store does business better, will be less and less available in the future. The explosion of ‘to the door delivery’ design in retail is the epitome of efficiency.

    Efficiency, then, is the enemy. The thousands of support jobs and stable futures in the old clumsy brick and mortar world are gone. In their place are laser efficient delivery systems by anonymous drivers and order takers with returns gladly accepted because there isn’t time to haggle the purchase and quality experience.

    Gone are the afternoons of walk about and bus rides into town with the carry home of some precious goods that solved a problem or made life easier. Our market system has us more and more isolated so there is little wonder that the store level reflects this inevitable vacuum of precision.

    Making us less sociable while concentrating profits in fewer hands the market system of the 21st Century is manufacturing our personalities and manners in what is arguably a destructive desperate need for things.

    Battleships are far more friendly in that hit what they aim at. Our Marts seem to hit all of us and take their toll in tiny bites at our patience and ability to feel safe or hopeful in any regard.

    Thank you again for more than the story but the story behind the story.

    • It’s an interesting juxtaposition: We shop at Wal-Mart because it offers us products a few cents or dollars cheaper than the local retailer, but ultimately it forces the local retailer out of business, which hurts the community as a whole. Wal-Mart can all but command whatever price it wants for products it wants to purchase for sale because it can buy them in such large volume; and it enhances its profit margin by paying low wages, keeping employees from qualifying for benefits by keeping them from working more than a certain number of hours a week and by understaffing stores, no matter the impact on customer service.

      Other big-box stores such as Kmart, Sears, etc., aren’t as bad, but none are seen as especially responsive, especially high-quality, or especially good to work for.

      The bottom line is we get what we pay for. If we want to save a few bucks, as in the case of Kmart of Wal-Mart, we have to expect long lines, a lack of available employees when you need help and the general chaos that is part and parcel of the modern Mart shopping experience.

      It’s all part of our disposable society, where goods are purchased with the expectation that they will last mere months, rather than years. Once you accept that level of quality, the battle is lost.

      • Except for your article I had given little thought to the social impact of our current market system. Funny what can be found even when you’re not looking.

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