A love song to Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck

By Dr. Robert Passikoff

President, Brand Keys

For nearly 100 years Sears, Roebuck & Co. was America's greatest retailer and consumers loved them. Hard to believe today? Well here's a bit from a 1949 song by Ray Gilbert, William Okie, and Al Gannay. The first verse went like this:

Dear Mister Sears and Roebuck:

I been sittin' here a-thumbin' through your book.

Page a hundred ninety-nine

Shows a stove that's mighty fine

And a feller in an apron like a cook.

Dear Mister Sears and Roebuck:

That electric stove's away above my class.

It's a beauty, yes indeed,

But the thing I really need

Is that man to teach me how to cook with gas.

It ended as follows:

Don't mean to fuss, poor Roebuck,

But you'll never fill my order, it appears.

If the shortage is acute,

I'm an easy girl to suit.

I'll shut up if you send me Mister Sears.

The "book" the song referred to was the Sears catalog, first published in 1888. It eventually came to be known as "the Consumers' Bible," offering catalogs as large as 500 pages long, featuring everything from phonographs to bicycles, milk pails to automobiles, even headstones and ready-to-assemble house kits. Two years later, in 1896, you could order toys and groceries. It was a kind of 19th century paperback Amazon.com. In 1933, Sears issued the first of its famous Christmas catalogs, the "Sears Wishbook."

Based on actual market results, along with some actual market research à la our annual Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, it's apparent that there aren't a lot of consumers singing love songs to Sears today, and that Sears Holdings is wishing for happier days. Sears Holdings just announced its plan to close its flagship Loop location in Chicago this April, and will begin liquidating merchandise at the store next week.

Less space, fewer stores serves better?

CEO Edward Lampert indicated that he believes Sears can better serve customers with less space and fewer stores. When you figure that one out, let us know. Sears ranked fourth (of 5) national department stores we track in the annual survey. The stores' own customers do the brand evaluations, but alas, for Sears this is becoming a smaller and smaller segment of the buying public. Brands like Sears end up at the bottom of their respective lists because they fail to meet expectations consumers hold for what drives loyalty in their category. You've got to watch those expectations because they almost always move up and brands have a hard time keeping up in the best of circumstances.

Engagement and loyalty metrics prove it out: meet those expectations and you do well. Don't, and it always shows up on the bottom line because emotional engagement and loyalty metrics are leading-indicators of consumer behavior. And it's axiomatic that it consumers don't behave well toward a brand, it's not likely that the brand is going to do well.

How is Sears doing? Well, the struggling department store reported same-store sales declines of 7.4 percent earlier this month, with year-to-date sales down 3.9 percent. The closure shouldn't come as a surprise, though. Sears has been selling off stores and leases to raise desperately needed cash for a financial infusion to stem declining revenues.

Co-founder Richard Sears was once quoted as saying, "If you buy a good watch you will always be satisfied, and at our prices a good watch will influence the sale of another good watch; and that's our motto: 'Make a Watch Sell a Watch.'" Today a better motto for Sears Holdings would be: "Watch Those Expectations, Sell A Lot of Product."

(Photo by Julie Vazquez.)

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Joseph Solinsky
    The problem with Sears is that the majority of it's stores were designed in the 70's/80's and are out of date and poorly maintained. From a soft-lines merchandising point of view they take a MOR approach ultimately catering to the tastes of a demographic that is getting grayer, and has less disposable income . Affluent shoppers do not shop in a Sears. Hard-lines, like tools ,hardware, garden and major appliances which should be a strong category are unattractively displayed ,poorly merchandised, not well stocked or signed. The sales clerks have an indifferent attitude to customer service- if you can find one in their department.
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