Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Sears Worth Holding?

It’s the post-Christmas season, that favorite time of year for stock analysts and business journalists to bang out on their keyboards early obituaries for Sears Holdings, operator of Sears and Kmart stores. The latest hospice vigil comes on the heels of the company’s announcement it would close 120 stores after disappointing holiday sales.

For more years than not over the last nearly four decades, I have been part of the annual exercise of wondering just how long these two venerable retail chains could survive. Seemingly year after year, customers have abandoned Sears and Kmart for fresher, more nimble, more price sensitive competitors, be they Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Old Navy or Amazon.com.

A true test of whether a company can, or should, survive, is the answer to the following question—would you miss it if closed its doors forever? Syms and its subsidiary Filene’s Basement are in the process of shuttering. I was a frequent Syms shopper. I must have bought at least 20 suits from Syms over the years. Though I haven’t bought a suit in about five years, I still liked walking the stores, both the one across the street from my former office and the outlet in Westchester. Just last week, for old times sake, I stopped by the Syms in Westchester. It was a depressing visit. Customers were picking over the bones of the remaining merchandise and fixtures. I’ll miss it. Maybe Century 21 will take its place. That would be nice.

Would you miss Sears or Kmart? I would. More Sears than Kmart. I’ve bought many a tool from Sears. Craftsman tools. Break them and get a free replacement. I broke the shaft of an awl back in my firewood-splitting days. Brought it back to Sears for a replacement, no questions asked. I’ve bought washing machines, dryers, a freezer and a refrigerator. I’ve bought apparel there as well, nothing fancy, just some shirts, underwear, Levi’s jeans. Everything I’ve bought at Sears, it seems to me, I bought on sale, perhaps even clearance. And that’s part of the company’s problem. Almost nothing in Sears is worth buying at full price, nothing enticing to make me want to go to Sears. Even its Consumer Reports top-rated laundry machines weren’t appealing until they went on sale and the salesman had to throw in added incentives.

Still, knowing Sears was there, and possibly carried what I wanted, was a comfort, a crutch to my consumerism. I’d miss Sears if it weren’t there. There was a time, from 1980 through about 2000, when I was fortunate enough to be the first journalist to interview every new, incoming head of Sears. I also knew the chief executives of Kmart, back then an independent company not part of Sears Holdings.

I can’t say I enjoy shopping at Kmart. It just never feels right inside its stores. I never find any apparel, except Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, worth buying. Except, one time I bought a silk tie in a Kmart outside Detroit. I can’t tell you how many of my friends complimented me on that tie. I resisted asking them for $3 so I could buy one for them.

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