Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve seen traditional retail transform.  In Rochester NY, where I grew up, there were several local department stores, started by local businessmen who became legends in the community.  Over time, these stores struggled as their downtown “flagship” stores (long before that term came into vogue) had to compete with suburban malls.  The loss of these grand stores, as they were bought out by national companies like the May Company and left downtown for the malls, also left gaping holes in the downtown real estate and in the culture of the center of the City itself.   Commerce and entertainment migrated into the suburbs and smaller trendy neighborhoods.  Downtown appears poised for a comeback, but the loss of many manufacturing jobs at Xerox, Kodak, and even Gannett makes this a challenge as well.

Beyond nostalgia for going to Sibley’s with my Grandmother and having lunch served on tables with cloths and silver, or going to the traditional Breakfast with Santa Claus each year, we’ve lost something else as retail and department stores in particular have consolidated over time and become national- we’ve lost a local connection, a personal touch, and a sense of pride of being part of the larger organization.  This may sound silly, but I think this lack of investment in a business as part of a community, and instead  treated as a warehouse of fungible jobs that could be fast food or sales or anything for that matter, has meant a loss of loyalty from the customer base as well.

Let’s take Sears for example.  The New York Times is reporting that Sears (which also encompasses Kmart and Land’s End now as well) is struggling for the second quarter in a row with weak sales.  I am not surprised in the slightest, based on my experiences with them this summer.

I was in the market for a small dorm sized refrigerator to send with my son to college.  I looked at the local appliance store, but they didn’t have quite what I wanted, so I went to our local Sears.  Sears has always stood for quality appliances, and their Kenmore brand is always highly rated by Consumer Reports.  Whenever we have been in the market for appliances, we almost always buy them from Sears, so I was expecting this to be an easy transaction.  I found a fridge that looked perfect and was on sale near the 4th of July weekend.  When we showed up in the store, it took about 10 minutes to find someone to help us, who was looking up items on his iPad, something I could from home, thanks, and had already.  It turned out the store only had one of the items in stock, and it had just been purchased by someone ahead of us, but there was one available, said the computer, at a local store, about a 15 minute drive away.  We went ahead and bought the appliance at Store A and went to pick it up at Store B.  When we got to Store B, they told us they didn’t have any, and we needed to go inside and talk to the person on duty.  I had to wait 25 minutes before I could talk to a sales person, and an additional 20 before I could talk to a manager- apparently no one else other than someone in that Department could help me, which seems ironic since everyone was carrying around iPads.  (Side note: During this time, I began to tweet about my difficulties and got a prompt response from Sears on Twitter, and later from their customer service department, that was excellent and resolved our issues completely.)  When I did get to talk to a manager, her first response was “The person from Store A should have called here first since the computer is often wrong.”  Fine, but clearly not my problem- I had bought an item and they could not deliver!  So I asked for them to ship it to my house and cover the shipping, or have it delivered to the store and I could pick it up.  They couldn’t do that since it was discontinued.   We had to CALL web sales and order the fridge from the Web Store while I sat in the physical store, and the physical store had to refund my original purchase since Sears.com and Sears the Store are not the same thing, apparently.  I also had to pay for shipping, (which ultimately was compensated through a gift card to the store through Customer Service) which made the waste of three hours of my life absolutely pointless.  It would have been faster, easier and less frustrating for everyone if I had merely bought the appliance online and had it shipped rather than go to their store.

The process of buying a microwave (with the giftcard from the above debacle) at the store, including an issue with incorrect shelf pricing and their new membership model) meant that this process, about two weeks after the first debacle, took about 45 minutes, when I could have done the same purchase at Target in about 5 minutes flat.

Sears has great tools and appliances.  Land’s End clothes are well made.  The quality of their stuff is fine.  Their staff is either poorly trained or simply don’t care at all unless they work on commission, based on our recent experience.  Even buying a small set of tools for the College freshman involved a salesperson first trying to use their iPad and eventually having to use a register to complete the transaction, making even the simplest purchase transaction more of a headache than it should ever be.

I was left with the impression after my recent experience that if I ever want anything from Sears, I should buy it online and pick it up in the store, only after verifying it is actually there by phone, but under no circumstances, should I actually try to purchase something in the store itself unless I had time to burn.  In fact, based on the fridge experience, I think they are sending me the message they would prefer I didn’t go to the store, either, as it seems just to annoy the managers and sales help. Given that much of their merchandise besides tools and appliances can be purchased at places like Kohl’s or Target with less hassle, I don’t know why I would ever go into a Sears store again except for tools or appliances.

If Sears, or any other store wants traditional retail to work, you have to make it pleasant.  You have to have sales people who know their products and actually think about helping the folks wandering around the department, help them narrow choices or consider options.  You have to make it something better than buying the same thing online.  When your sales help is using the same device I have at home to check inventory and still gets it wrong,  there is absolutely no benefit to either of us if I darken your doorway for which I am sure you are paying plenty of rent.

Traditional retail has to give us something beyond “Get it today”.  Once we have all gotten used to purchasing things online, you need to make going into the store more like going into a showroom.  Let me touch the items, talk to me about them, understand my needs and steer me towards a good solution.  Without that sort of help, your sales associates are of little use except for trying to sell added insurance on items.  They could just as easily be replaced by the self-checkouts I use at Home Depot, while minimizing frustration.

While I ended up with a satisfactory experience from Sears, the satisfaction came through Social Media and Twitter and national customer service, not from my community members and neighbors who worked in the store itself.  There was no sense of pride or investment in the store or product, just people punching a clock for the most part, and looking demoralized in the process.  No one needs that kind of environment- the workers or the shoppers.

Based on my recent experience, I totally understand why Sears has flat or declining sales.  This same experience of employee indifference is not atypical from my recent experiences at Best Buy, Macy’s, or a number of other national retailers.  What retail needs is what the department stores of yore knew- customer service, kindness, and solving small problems led to loyalty and then profits.  Indifference leads to bankruptcy.  Culture matters- not just for employees but for consumers.  If you forget this, you might as well consider closing your doors, because it may only be a matter of time until people find somewhere else to get what they need,faster and with less ennui.

(And in case Sears customer service does read this blog post, I do want to thank you again for your prompt attention to this matter and for far outshining your local employees.  However, until Sears helps make our local employees better and more engaged in their jobs, you may be fighting a losing, uphill battle.)