Ali Craig is a branding expert, speaker, and author who helps brands and entrepreneurs evolve and reposition their messages and images so that they can stay on top of their respective industries. In response to the recent news of Sears filing for bankruptcy, Craig spoke with Trend Hunter to highlight how the once iconic American retailer failed to adapt, and where others have the opportunity to grow.
You’ve identified three key mistakes that led to the demise of Sears, can you explain what these are?
Sears had the opportunity to be a legacy brand that was built into the social story of modern America and retail shopping. That said, one mistake that led to its demise was that it focused too much on one demographic: men. Top priority was given to tools and appliances and not the remaining 90% of the store. With big boxes like Home Depot, Lowe's and Best Buy coming into the tool and appliance game, Sears could no longer win over the market it was focused on. Plus, research has shown that women are the ones with a bigger buying influence on the market.
Secondly, Sears didn’t modernize. Besides the physical stores’ displays, designs and layout not being updated, Sears didn’t bother to modernize its offerings until it was too late. Fashion styles, home decor, and beauty were all stuck in decades past.
Lastly, Sears made a mistake by trying to hide its past. Everyone remembers Sears. Whether it was picking up an item with mom or grandma, or drooling over the Christmas Toy Catalog, most of us have fond memories of the store. Sears left its mark on many of us. Instead of embracing this history, it tried to hide from it — and that never works.
You’ve said that the demise of Sears has less to do with employee pensions or the staffing cuts that were made over the last 10 years than many people believe, can you explain this?
If Sears was making enough money in sales, the employee pension and staffing issues would have never been a problem. Lack of sales because of an outdated client experience is what caused this issue.
What did successful competitors do that Sears didn’t?
I wouldn’t say it was a perfect home run but JCPenney was able to adapt much more successfully. Overall, JCP updated its brand look, evolved its store experience by partnering with Sephora, and took a step back to return to its brand roots: good wholesome values for the whole family.
How can department stores adapt to the evolving retailer experience?
It is common practice in the interior design industry to know that human beings need three spaces to go to in order to feel secure and well adjusted. Most of us have home and work, which makes up spaces one and two. With the advent of malls, retail locations like Sears overtook the historical third space, which used to be held by churches. This means that fundamentally as human beings, we need connections, acceptance and places to go. Retail locations can still function as this when they stop just selling products and start selling the lifestyle that their audiences want to live.
Do you they stand a chance against major online competitors like Amazon?
Modern retailers can beat Amazon if they create a unique experience, help their customers to live the lives they want and have instant access to the products they are looking for. Ironically, that is where many retailers are failing. Retailers are minimizing their inventory to save on cost and in turn, the customers can’t leave with the products they want. As many retailers aren’t creating unique shopping experiences or modeling for their audiences, consumers end up not leaving with the product in hand which turns into a moment of frustration.
In respect to the retail industry, what is the most important piece of advice you can give to brands looking to stay on top?
We live in an age where options are everywhere. Retailers have to abandon the idea that customers need them because they don’t. What customers do need is an experience where they can live the lives that they dream of, even if it’s only for a few moments. They need a place where they are inspired, excited and motivated to keep going: a community where their fears and desires are understood and supported.
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