A Tale of Two Sears and "A Road Not Taken"

A Tale of Two Sears and "A Road Not Taken"

by Danny Summers


This past week in the WDR, Steve Bailey spotlighted recent announcements by Sears Holdings they will shrink and streamline their produce offering in the coming months as they try to reorganize AGAIN. Steve's parallel here was a challenge to Group Centers to be vigilant about the products you are offering. He has recently told me he often sees centers getting lazy on controlling inventory (and turns) when sales are strong and times are good and therefore not maximizing their profitability.

His comments about Sears sent me back to my beginning days in retail and through my eyes (and memory), this is a Tale of Two Sears or maybe more fitting "A Road Not Taken." The timeless poem by Robert Frost of that name paints a telling tale of opportunity. The choice, or decision, at a fork in the road, for the poet, "made all the difference."

If you are close to my "tenure", you will remember the Sears Roebuck that was at the forefront of our world. The difference between the Sears Roebuck & Co. I experience and Sears Holdings of today is worlds apart. I remember every year as a kid growing up to be so anxious for "The Wish Book" to arrive in our mailbox. For decades, going to Sears Roebuck was a great experience. They offered a wide range of products at a good-better-best approach and service expertise. And the best was just that, the best you could find. I started working at Sears while still in High School, unloading catalog trucks. As I started college, Sears offered me a chance to go through their management training and full-time benefits, and I accepted. With a few years I was one of the store's youngest division managers and enjoying everything Sears was at the time and all I could learn. It was a great combination of community and education, all rolled into one.

Then, about 7 years into this adventure, is where the "Road Not Taken" comes in. Sears had a new chairman, Ed Brennan and that was about when we began to hear about the "store of the future" (more about this... just keep reading). You also need to know at this time, there was a new competitor emerging who was getting lots of attention, K-mart, and it seemed our company management had all their attention on what they saw as a growing threat. Looking back, this was "two roads diverged in a yellow wood", with emphasis on the word YELLOW here symbolizing, for me at least, CAUTION!

After many years of reflecting on what happened, I believe the "two roads" decision for Sears was... (1) take the high road, focusing on higher quality and higher service and continuing to be the high-service standard, or (2) the low road, where competing with discounters would mean less focus on quality, more on lower prices and less staff. This last part is a big part of what we found out about "store of the future" as it was a world with central cash wraps and most importantly, stores with fewer people (staff), what I called "store with no people."

Well, we all know what happened. But what would have happened if Sears Roebuck had taken the other road choice?  I believe this story would be much different. Certainly Sears Roebuck most likely would still be struggling today with overall retailing trends and the modern challenges online retailing has brought. Maybe they would have also lead some of that change.

But what I believe would have been different is... (1) Sears Roebuck had the capability to excel in a quality and service retail environment, and (2) would not have been taken over in its weakened state by someone with funds raised by selling off K-mart assets and then investing very little in this American icon, with its roots way back to 1893.

By now, you may be asking...

"How can this story help me in my Garden Center today?"

The "Two Roads" decision today is the same...do you focus your business on quality and service, or being the low-price leader in your market. I think it is easy to see the answer in many of the companies today we see as successful compared to the long line of businesses that made the other decision at that fork in the road. Focusing on low prices is not a sustainable decision.

How can you position your business to take "the high road?"

I hope this look back at the "Tale of Two Sears" can help you in your quest to build your business today and tomorrow. I believe the "Road Less Traveled" for you today is the best decision.

The Group has many assets (people) to help you as you see the fork in the road. Are you leveraging the benefits of being a part of The Group? Call me anytime and let's discuss what you may be missing.


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