Goodbye Old Friend

 

 

Kenmore is a Sears brand of appliances. They started making washing machines in 1927, and along with Coldspot and the Craftsman line of tools, the name was synonymous with quality for many years. We have a mid 1950’s Coldspot refrigerator that still works perfectly.

Today it is difficult to know what kind of hardware actually exists behind the Kenmore label. It could be Whirlpool, LG, Electrolux, Panasonic or Daewoo Electronics. Craftsman is now owned by Stanley Black and Decker.

Sears has been in trouble for quite some time. Walmart and Amazon were a one-two punch on the glass jaw of a company which failed to adapt to changing times. The shift to online shopping was inevitable, along with new software innovations and data-driven marketing. But Sears rested on its century-old laurels. Just a few years ago customers had to wait in line to make a purchase while employees wrestled with archaic text-based software at the register and an ancient inventory control system that seemed to struggle to find anything.

Some of us have tried to remain loyal to Sears. We grew up relying on Sears brands and our toolboxes are still full of Craftsman tools. Where else could we go on a Sunday afternoon without an appointment and get new tires or an oil change? But with each passing year we began to notice that there was less reason to shop at Sears. Inventories declined and electronics was replaced by, of all things, mattresses.

As customers, we did not know that a weakened Sears had been infested with tapeworms. Our Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was on the board of Sears Holdings Corporation. He and his college roommate, Sears CEO, Eddie Lampert, helped to disembowel Sears by using the corporation’s line of credit to setup a REIT, and then transferred billions worth of prime real estate owned by Sears into the fund. Sears now teeters on the edge of bankruptcy with a hole in its pension fund of over $2 billion.

With declining sales and cash flow problems, Sears finds it increasingly difficult to stock  shelves, and long term relationships have ended with some vendors who are concerned about being paid.

Along the path of the decline of what once was an iconic American brand, Sears began to cannibalize itself to stay in business. It sold Craftsman Tools, Lands End and Sears Canada. Lampert is now pushing the battered company to sell the Kenmore brand (to his own company, ESL Investments).

A few years ago my wife and I bought a Kenmore washing machine that failed on its first day. We bought a tiller from Sears which we watched being loaded by a store manager who actually opened the crate to verify the model number. When we got the tiller home and opened the box ourselves, there in plain sight was a rat’s nest, and the rats had gnawed through the spark plug wire.

Still we tried to remain loyal. But we began to notice that something about the Sears “culture” and commitment to customers was changing. Last year we went to Sears first when we started shopping for two major appliances, but we did not buy from Sears. Sears matched the competitors’ price for the appliances, but the competitors wanted a fraction of what Sears did for an extended warranty – and they offered free delivery while Sears would have charged for it.

Six weeks ago we ordered a metal building from Sears. After waiting a month for delivery, we tried to cancel the order. What followed was a nightmare of miscommunication from customer support, which Sears has moved offshore to places where English is not the native language and it is very difficult to understand what is being said over bad phone connections. (We were able to understand that “Sally” at the beginning of one call became “Monica” by the end of the same call.)  It took days to correct a mistake Sears’ inventory control system made which indicated that the building which never arrived had already been picked up.

The most recent insult was our Kenmore washing machine, still under warranty but failing after less than a year. Two service calls failed to fix it and now we wait for a main board to arrive so we can schedule a third service call. The repair tech told us that the new board will probably fail also, but Sears refuses to exchange the machine, even for an upgrade where we would pay the difference. Instead they condescended to extend the warranty an additional three months. Amazon would already have shipped us a replacement.

After we complained to anyone who would listen, Sears eventually called us with what they said was a great opportunity. No, they could not replace the washer, but they would sell us an extended warranty for the washer (the one they can’t fix) at a discount. But first we would have to buy a separate warranty for our year old dishwasher, which would “activate” the discount offer on the washing machine.

When I finally stopped laughing I said, for the sake of clarity, “Let me see if I understand.  You can’t fix the washer. You don’t have the part needed to fix it. You don’t know when you can get the part. You won’t let me trade in my washer and pay you for an upgrade. But I can give you $200 and own a warranty on the washer that doesn’t work as well as the dishwasher that does?”

Sometimes laughter covers disappointment. When I started laughing again the young lady from Sears wished me a good evening and hung up the phone.

We adapt, or we decline. Sears waited too late to adapt, and when it tried, it was betrayed by its own insiders. It’s culture changed, perhaps from a sense of impending doom seeping into the awareness of even store level employees. Accountability was fragmented, compartmentalized and then widely distributed so that each person could say “there’s nothing I can do” when presented with a problem that could not be resolved to Sears’ advantage. The incidents here do not suggest a growing company investing in relationships to build a future, but a declining company acting in desperation.

Sears, you were our reliable companion during the height of American affluence. Losing you is like losing an old friend. We will miss you.

(Note: Sears Hometown Stores are independently owned and operated and are not involved with the operations of stores owned by Sears Holdings Corporation.)

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