Lessons From The Sears Shipwreck

In college I worked as a bellman at a nice hotel. I carried bags, delivered room service, unclogged drains (as gross as it sounds in a hotel) and worked until 11pm or midnight. I am not a night owl, so studying was impossible after my shift. It only took a semester or so for me to see that I needed to spend more time on schoolwork and less time delivering BLTs to tired salespeople.

The bartender at the hotel also had a job in the HR department at the local Sears department store, so I begged him to get me a job there. A few weeks later I was selling Craftsman tools, and I did so until I got my first gig as a professional writer. It was a strange time. I met my best friend there, and we still look back on those days and laugh at the bizarre adventures we had (“so you’re saying this is a sandpaper emergency?”).

Today, the news of Sears filing for bankruptcy and closing stores (including my old stomping grounds) is a big story – not because it is a surprise, but because more than any retailer in the history of this great nation, Sears, Roebuck and Company is / was an institution. It was founded in 1886, and it was the biggest retailer in the United States for nearly a century.

Why was Walmart (and eventually Amazon) able to overtake Sears? I remember standing around the till discussing this very topic nearly thirty years ago when I was an employee. We were all new businesspeople (except for The Shark, a retired Air Force airman who was so kind and friendly that it was hard to stay mad at him for popping out of the water like Jaws and stealing your sales) and as such, we all had our own opinions about the downward trajectory of Sears. There was one thing we all agreed on, though, even back then: nobody knew exactly what kind of store Sears was anymore.

From the onset, Walmart was clear about their position in the mind of their customers. “We’re the cheapest!” they yelled proudly on every ad. Whether you agree with that strategy or not, at least it was well defined. From our vantage point in the hardware department, my friend and I could easily see our coworkers at Sears peddling unfashionable women’s clothing, average televisions, unremarkable furniture, well-made car tires and even by-the-book investment services. None of those products were the cheapest or the most expensive. None of them were the best or the worst.

Sears died from terminal mediocrity.

You can carve yourself out a position in the marketplace as the least expensive (Walmart), the most convenient (Amazon) or the most expensive (Lululemon), but it is pretty much impossible to stake your claim on “you may not be thrilled, but you won’t be disappointed.”

I was on the S.S. Sears when it started to spring leaks and list toward its starboard bow. And even though we made a lot of jokes at the company’s expense, it breaks my heart to see it succumb to the waves. At the same time, I want to make sure that none of my client’s suffer the same fate. If I have anything to say about it, they will have well-defined positions in the minds of their customers, easy-to-understand benefits for users and aggressively unique branding materials to back it all up.

If somebody asked you to define your business in five words or less, would you use terms like “best?” That word can be used by anybody, really. The most successful companies have a distinct understanding of who they are, and they can articulate it in a language that is their own.

If we work together, we can ensure that Sears does not die in vain. Let’s learn from its mistakes and paint your brand in a color that makes it one of a kind. Success comes from knowing who you are, not trying to be everybody else.