I mentioned in a previous blog that I worked part-time at Sears for nearly 6 years when we moved and our former house refused to sell.  Sears was my “fun” job.  I sold power tools, hand tools, garden equipment, exercise equipment, and (during Christmas) Christmas Trees.  I helped customers select what they wanted and what they needed.  It was a true service industry.  As sales associates, we were rigorously trained by Sears to know our products, ask the correct questions of our customers, and make “customers for life.”

Before I began working there, I had always regarded Sears as quality store.  My mother had shopped there when we were children more interested in hiding among the clothes racks than shopping for clothes.  We had eagerly paged through the toy section of the Sears catalog every November looking for the gifts we wanted to ask Santa to bring.  Sears was where you went if you wanted a quality product that lasted.  Kenmore and Craftsman were proud store brand names.

I began working there just as the economy tanked in 2008.  Sears showed all employees a video explaining that, as a company, they had been through depressions and recessions.  They knew what to do to survive.  It was an encouraging video, but I was soon to learn that it was no longer as true as it had once been.

I cannot know all the factors that have led to the demise of Sears.  Perhaps the word “demise” is a little premature, but I expect it is not.  I hope I’m wrong, because I know the people who work there in ways I didn’t when Montgomery Wards went to the mall in the sky when I was in my 20’s.  I know how difficult it will be for those who were my fellow coworkers to find another job.  Certainly, no one but Sears would hire me for part-time work when I needed the additional income.  But I do know what I saw and experienced as a successful Sears associate who received awards and recognition from my store managers and our company.

When I first joined, the older associates complained that “It wasn’t fun anymore.”  They had worked for Sears for over 30 years, and they had seen the store change after it was purchased by K-Mart.  (Remember when K-Mart was going bankrupt and they purchased Sears and made it all better?)  As I worked there, I realized just how antiquated it’s register system was.  In my “real” job, I worked in the computer industry, and I recognized old technology when it was staring me in the face.  But that wasn’t the main problem.

It seemed to me that the main problem was that Sears had all the problems of the Federal Government with none of the benefits.  It used the same top down, hierarchical approach of the government, but unlike the government, it couldn’t tax you more to make sure it stayed afloat.  Sears wasn’t listening to the associates on the front lines.  They were telling the front lines what they should experience based upon their statistics.

Let me give you an example.  The “planogram” (a plan of how to display things on the shelves) put automotive jacks in front of creepers, the wheeled platforms mechanics use to slide under cars.  But that meant you couldn’t take the creepers off their hooks without moving all the jacks!  It was even hard to see the cheaper creeper (I couldn’t resist the rhyme) behind the jacks.  When I pointed this out to my manager, I was told it was on the “planogram”, and it couldn’t be changed.  We would be penalized by corporate if they came to visit and noticed we weren’t in compliance!  This was a jaw dropping inefficiency!

Sears began cutting services.  It used to be that you could buy a Craftsman tape measure and, if it broke, you could get another absolutely free.  First, Sears attempted to narrow the reasons you could return a tape measure and get a free replacement.  When that didn’t work (I guess), it simply stopped selling them altogether!

They began cutting our commissions.  They began tracking each associate on how many credit cards we had convinced customers to take, how many protection agreements we sold, how often we used the online shopping, how many people signed up for “Shop Your Way”, etc.?  And woe to the associate who didn’t make his or her quota!

They gave us iPads.  I’m computer literate, so I adjusted, but other associates struggled.  They insisted we use them to ring customers out, but there weren’t enough of them for every associate.  Worse, the register was significantly quicker than the iPads if your customer was purchasing more than one item.  Customers began to get annoyed at the delay, but if we didn’t use the iPads — and Sears knew who didn’t use them — they would talk to us sternly.  At times, we used the register anyway.  We were on the front lines, and we wanted to give good service.

Sears would try one thing, then another.  To me, it felt like Sears was had suddenly been pushed into the deep end of the pool and didn’t know how to swim.  Sears was flailing to stay afloat.  No one strategy lasted longer than a couple of months.  The associates were bewildered, but we had no choice but to try to adapt.  It was particularly hard on the part-time associates who weren’t necessarily there when the change started.  It wasn’t communicated adequately to those in different shifts.

Our 800 numbers, designed to help a Sears associate give good service, became more and more difficult for the customers.  I remember many a call with an “800 lady” on the other end of the line, patiently explaining that she was telling the customer one thing and we, on the sales floor, were telling them something else.  I had the documentation to prove what we were telling the customer was correct, but the 800 number lady was skeptical!  The customers were watching and listening, hoping I could make their situations right.  The 800 numbers were becoming the bane of our existence.

Corporate started coming in and firing managers — good managers!  It was part of restructuring.  Our HR lady was one of the first to go.  Her position was abolished.  Other managers followed.  If the manager had served long enough, he or she would be given the option of retiring instead of being fired, but it was one or the other.  And then corporate started abolishing other full time positions and asking the stunned employee if she would like to reapply for another position — at less money.  After what I have dubbed the “Tuesday afternoon massacre”, almost every manager was gone but one of the younger junior managers.  They promoted him to temporary store manager.  He asked, “Will I get a temporary raise?”  “No”, they told him, “and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.”

But all this, as bad as it was, doesn’t explain why I think the end is now near.  Here is why:  Our local store in which I worked was profitable, but Sears accepted an offer from Dick’s Sporting Goods.  Dick’s paid Sears two year’s profit to close the store, and Sears agreed.  That’s ominous.  You don’t close profitable stores for any amount unless you are bleeding money so badly elsewhere that you can’t wait for the cash.  This feels like a death knell to me.

But I hope I’m wrong.  I enjoyed working at Sears.  I would do it again.  I helped people, actually helped them.  I wasn’t just earning a commission.  I learned to help a customer get just what they needed and no more.  None of us needed to “up sell” (sell a customer something they didn’t really need that was more expensive) just to get a higher commission.  More importantly, we regarded our customers as people who needed our help to make their lives better.  We all intended to make “Customers for Life” for Sears.

Having worked there for six years, I’m less certain Sears was living by its own motto.

 

 

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