Sears Feels the Power of the Press

Where is my treadmill?Over the weekend a reporter from a major national newspaper got interested in my treadmill saga. He called Sears to get their side of the story. And in no time at all, on Monday Shirley from Sears corporate offices in Hoffman Estates, Ill. — the real corporate offices as opposed to the “executive offices” that house Stephanie — was on the phone to me sorting things out.

Yesterday Shirley called to tell me I’d have a treadmill by Monday — the “2013 model” — which was presented as a great favor because it has a larger LCD screen (like I care? My plan is to be walking at a constant pace, listening to my podcasts or maybe in the future watching DVR’s Daily Shows and Colbert Reports). Supposedly the 2013s too are currently on ‘backorder’ so getting one to Miami by then is an exceptional event.

Given that the Sears.com web page currently promises delivery to my zip code of the very same Sole F80 by 10/06/12 — Saturday — I’m not as impressed as Shirley might wish. Either this great favor isn’t a great favor or, at least as likely, the web page is misleading people. I asked Shirley about the delivery info online and she blamed the manufacturer, who she says loads the availability data directly onto the Sears site and, she seemed to imply, says goods are available when they are not. If that’s true, it seems an awesome failure on Sears’s part not to write contracts that would penalize suppliers for creating circumstances that pretty seriously trash Sears’s customer experience and brand. But what do I know, I teach law not marketing. No doubt the wizards of Bain could explain why this is really good business because it saves on an employee somewhere.

Shirley clearly has real power, though: the Sears bot did not call today. What a shame Sears cannot or will not empower its call center people to turn off the calls too. After all, if Sears will let an arms-length manufacturer write direct to the database that runs its web sales arm, why won’t it let its outsourced call center employees control the robocaller?

More importantly, why does it take the threat of unfavorable national publicity to get a company to honor its promise in what should have been a fairly routine consumer transaction? I would love to hear someone at Sears explain what went wrong in not just in their supply chain but more importantly in the delivery and post-sale customer support networks — and especially what they plan to do about it. Otherwise, it sounds like time to short Sears stock — surely no firm can survive doing business like this?

If the article appears, I gather it would run onNEXT Sunday. I’ll be sure to link to it if does.

[Next installment: A Quick Dispatch from the Treadmill Front]

Previously:

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6 Responses to Sears Feels the Power of the Press

  1. Peter Lederer says:

    You write: “— surely no firm can survive doing business like this?” Hah!

  2. Vic says:

    “More importantly, why does it take the threat of unfavorable national publicity to get a company to honor its promise in what should have been a fairly routine consumer transaction?”

    You’re thinking too much like a law professor when you think this way. While the black-letter truth might be that you had a contract, the common truth is that nobody you were dealing with at Sears knows anything, or cares anything, about contract law. You just had a sales gone bad to them. The key to dealing with the aftermath of a sales goine bad situation, as you learned here, is to go find the person with the keys and deal with them directly. The person at the warehouse or call center has very limited power. Don’t expect regular people to worry about the intricasies of offer, acceptence, etc.

    “I would love to hear someone at Sears explain what went wrong in not just in their supply chain but more importantly in the delivery and post-sale customer support networks — and especially what they plan to do about it.”

    The shorter answer is that the idea of “just in time inventory” wreaked havok on the big boxes who used it. The old way of doing business, and the software than ran things, and the people who still do, have not really been able to make it work properly in every case. When things fall through cracks and/or conflict with inventory numbers there is little buffer room to save things – as there used to be. And the systems designed to manage inventory don’t really work 100% on such short inventories and subsystems don’t often properly communicate interactively (so the flag that sent a record to the robo-caller was not chageable by the system that managed the robo-caller, but the inventory management system that wasn’t reachable by anyone you talked to.

    It actually all makes perfect sense, and it likely very close to the above in reality, but then I’ve worked in inventory management systems.

    “Otherwise, it sounds like time to short Sears stock — surely no firm can survive doing business like this?”

    Sears has been fairly moribund for years now (as is Best Buy). What keeps them alive are appliances and Craftsman tools. It’s people who put up with waaaay too much grief from them that keeps them alive. I’m glad this is getting sorted out.

  3. Frank says:

    As for shorting: I think there are two “Sears’s.” One is the crumbling, Idiocracy-style bureaucracy that you’ve shamed. The other is the glittering facade of corporate brand management and “core competency” leveraging. The second lures in more money by starving the first, ala moves like these:

    http://www.californiahealthline.org/road-to-reform/2012/watch-sears-and-darden-not-obama-vs-romney-for-future-of-health-care.aspx

    I’m sure Wall Street will be 100X more enthusiastic about a long-term plan to pioneer the euthanasia of employer-sponsored health care, than it will be alarmed about a small issue like utterly alienating customers.

  4. Altoid says:

    In business history a really key transition came with capital-intensive, continuous-process manufacturing, namely that pricing had to be set to serve the companies’ needs rather than be left to the marketplace, the “visible hand” at work. Over the past century and more, the idea has only expanded so that all aspects of design, production, distribution, marketing, should follow that model, and almost all outfits of any size are supposed to follow it. What fascinates me about this particular case is how carefully Sears has structured its consumer-relations department (or whatever this is called) to insulate the company’s processes from any actual response to actual consumer conditions. It is a kind of idealism gone berserk. (They must have learned it from computer help lines.)

    I also wonder– or maybe this has been answered already– whether Sears actually warehouses or stocks this product in any meaningful way, whether it actually passes through Sears hands at any point, or whether they’re just acting as a drop-ship marketing operation. Could warehousing be on the way out? If I understand what Amazon does, a lot of their business is actually just routing orders to suppliers who ship direct to buyers. ABE does the same thing in the used book market, but its participating sellers actually have their own identities. (In the physical world some department stores actually *don’t* have the departments in question but rent the floor space to outside operators.) If it’s this kind of operation, that would explain both the seller’s access to the Sears website and the inability of customer relations to actually do anything at all, even if they wanted to. Plus the helplessness even of Sears corporate.

    Altogether a fascinating case study of how the whole sales/distribution/followup system is designed to malfunction at the slightest deviation from ideal design. Too bad you’re the pigeon here!

  5. Kaleberg says:

    There has been a change in the way companies work. In the old days, the boss didn’t have a clue. Now, no one has a clue. All the knowledge has been outsourced. The guy stocking shelves works for a supplier, so the store has no control over its stock. (Even Walmart stopped doing its own stocking earlier this year.) The desk staff at a hotel works for one company and the cleaning staff works for another and the catering staff works for a third. The hotel company can spell “hotel” correctly two times out of three. In some rare cases, this might make sense, but as Boeing discovered with its 787, it can destroy the company.

    Start watching, you’ll see this everywhere. When Jamie Dimon says he doesn’t have a clue as to what the company he heads is doing, he is probably not lying, just reporting the truth as any other CEO would.

  6. Barry says:

    Michael,

    You’ve accepted multiple botched deliveries at great personal inconvenience, and then spent hours on the phone speaking to their selected contact people at *their* convenience and your massive inconvenience. And you still haven’t figured out that the Sears product is actually far more expensive than competing contracts – Sears simply offloaded 10-20 hours of crap onto you, and you tolerate it. If you billed your time at $50/hr, you’re possibly $1,000 in the hole. That treadmill is rather expensive, in the end. Ask your friends and colleagues who they’ve been happy dealing with, and deal with them.

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