The Sears Struggle

Some brands can feel too big to fail. Our history is dotted with dozens of household names that generation after generation couldn’t imagine life without. Until they do.

Most famously, we have Kodak. As I wrote in “The New Kodak Moment”:

As a brand who innovated and heralded a technology that made time stand still — the Kodak moment became a colloquialism equivalent to capturing a moment worth savoring forever. For several generations, Kodak was the world’s record keeper. But those times have quickly come and in gone

Kodak’s fundamental challenge was it built a business and iterated from its core understanding of their customer, the industry, and social trends at large. Kodak, unfortunately, is not the only mega brand to have this blindspot.

As of today, Sears and Kmart are staring down their own demise as well. Sears, a company that put household in “household brand” is on the ropes and possibly will never recover. CNN reports:

Sears was once the nation’s largest retailer and business employer. Long before the ascendance of Walmart (WMT), and decades before Amazon (AMZN, Tech30) was even born, the Sears catalog was how many Americans learned to shop from home for a large variety of items they wanted.
It developed an extensive store network, helping furnish homes as Americans moved to the suburbs after World War II — and causing trouble for small, locally owned shops.

It’s easy to poke holes in the strategies and decisions employed by Sears, after the fact. In all likelihood, there was no single fatal blow, but instead a series of changes, both subtle and substantial, that met an organization not prepared to embrace the underlying change.

Structurally, we can think about the 3 pillars for evaluating opportunities.

  • Personas — while the Sears customer continued to evolve, their perception as a brand continued to stay the same. Forcing a brand to re-invent itself in light of the evolving needs of new customer cohorts and generations is critical to fighting the future.
  • Products — Sears made some of the best products in the world, their reputation was undisputed in many categories. Of course, they made a range of products that were affordable and accommodated the needs of their customers. Unfortunately, as the customer changes, so must the products and iteration must give way to innovation.
  • Processes — Sears fought the good fight as a brick and mortar retailer. That unique advantage gave way as the constraints of space were eliminated by the Internet, mobile and more. Not only should the transition from paper to pixels have occurred earlier, new ways to leverage and extend the value of their physical presence could have been employed.

While every company must embrace change to guarantee its future, the strategy, tactics and attitudes towards change are the deciding difference between the winners and losers. When on the ropes, never retreat to the corner.