Retailers can learn important lessons from Sears

How Sears Changed America and 3 Things Retailers Must Learn from the News Last Week

Since Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week, the internet is exploding with dozens of posts about how the retailer has changed America, the way we live and how we shop. Among them, tweets from Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, shared how Sears fueled the American dream, empowering more American families with access to credit cards than any other outlet till the 1980’s.

But it’s Hyman’s Twitter thread on how the chain supported progress in the Rural South that’s been shared more than 17,000 times: “What most people don’t know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era of Jim Crow,” Hyman tweeted. Sears “undermined white supremacy in the rural South.”

While unsurprising, the news of the Sears bankruptcy and speculation around its future has hit hard everywhere across the country because of the retailer’s role in American history. The once leading retailer nationally is set to close 166 locations this year.

Even as many are pointing to financial mismanagement as the catalyst for the retailer’s undoing, failure to evolve with a changing marketplace is an undeniable contributor. Here’s what retailers must learn from the Sear’s bankruptcy:

  1. Recognize sea changes in the market.

Digital is changing the business landscape forever and while it isn’t all negative for retail, it’s time to read the signs and act. Online research leads to a 13% increase in spending in-store among omnichannel shoppers and 38% of global consumers prefer the in-store experience to shopping online. Buying behaviors are constantly changing with eCommerce, social media advertising, and voice search – 40% of consumers have used voice devices at some point in their shopping journey this year.

Technology is changing the human experience and how we interact with everything – retail is no exception.

One in every four consumers 35 and under used the internet for the first time on a smart phone. And less than 35 years ago, Sears had the greatest domestic revenue of any American retailer. In 2017 the iconic department store chain still ranked as the 23rd largest retailer in the United States, but just last week its parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after more than 100 years in business.

Don’t resist change.

  1. Know the power of a pivot.

Now being called the Amazon of its time, Sears lead the way for Amazon and Walmart, the company that eventually overtook the chain as the largest American retailer in 1989. Both companies pinned down strategies from the Sears playbook to get to where they are today.

Sears originally amassed its national presence through print catalogues and mail-in-orders, but never achieved a transition to digital when its customers and their buying behaviors started to shift. This gave Amazon a window to compete —overturning a legacy with an updated version of what made Sears successful decades ago— empowering a nation to have all their needs delivered right to their front door.

Sears itself is looking for a good pivot, aiming to reconnect with customers online to fuel a better experience and find purpose in the marketplace. WE’RE OPEN TO SERVE YOU, reads the brands banners across social media, in our stores, online, home services, home delivery and auto centers.

“Your kind words and warm memories are helping us shape our future,” the retailer tweeted last Friday with the hashtag #iHeartSears.

  1. Stop doing guesswork about buying behaviors and demand.

In today’s fast-evolving market with heightened customer expectations and growing competition, retailers can’t afford to rely on guesswork. Too many businesses like Sears are looking at what’s worked in the past – eyeing historical data to project customer demand and stock their locations.

But as consumer behaviors are moving to an omnichannel supply chain, history is exactly that. When it comes to having the right products on shelves, retailers need an exact science.

In JDA’s 2018 Global Consumer Survey Report, 34% of global respondents indicated that having the right products in stock is a must.

The good news? With online shopping data, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and the internet of things (IoT), stockouts and wasted inventory can be easily avoided with accurate forecasting. New technologies are powered by more data than ever, including real-time stats on weather, current events, movement on social media and other variables that impact demand.

What else have retailers learned from Sears?

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  1 Comment   Comment

  1. Great article Dick. What is so frustrating is it seems like Sears watched as other retailers like Kmart and Toys R Us crashed and burned, instead of evolving their business. I seem to remember 10+ years ago Sears was closing stores and not offering anything unique in the market that amazon couldn’t supply, for less. Sears leadership could have pivoted and the company could have become an even more dominant force. Instead, they are suffering the same fate as other retails who didn’t embrace the new economy.

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