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?
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.