A few weeks ago, Kim Bhasin and Lance Lambert did a news piece for Bloomberg entitled “The Long, Hard, Unprecedented Fall of Sears.” In 1989, Sears Roebuck & Company was the largest retailer in the United States. The tallest building in Chicago, and at one time, the tallest building in the world bore the company’s name. Once the second-largest retailer in America, K-Mart filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and in 2005 K-Mart and Sears merged to become the Sears Holding Corporation, which is now owned by billionaire Eddie S. Lampert and his company, ESL. According to the article, since the merger Lampert has dismantled the company and in January of this year the company was forced to sell their famous tool brand Craftsman to Stanley Black & Decker.
At one time, Sears led innovation in retail with the introduction of their catalog. Sears empowered consumers with real choices to buy good products at reasonable prices no matter where the customer lived. Sears actually improved living standards, helped lower the cost of living for most Americans and strengthened the buying power of the American middle class.
While Sears still talks bravely about its future and plans to integrate in-store, online and mobile shopping, this decline seems unparalleled in business history.
When we lose our focus we risk losing customers.
How did this happen? One analyst attributes it to poor decision-making. “The seeds were planted by poor decision-making in the 1980’s, during which time the company made a real estate play (by building the Sears Tower) instead of focusing on selling stuff.” Ironically, the “Sears Tower,” in which such tremendous resources were invested, eventually had to be sold. There was no money left to maintain, to innovate, to evolve a retail model that would attract future generations and new customers. The article concludes that while Sears talks bravely about its retail future and changes to meet the needs of today’s consumer, most business analysts see little hope.
Sears lost its customer focus and, in the end, it lost its customers. I would suggest Sears lost sight of its original vision. The company forgot that its brand equity was selling quality goods at affordable prices and delivering these products wherever the customer might live. Its brand equity was not just in the name “Sears,” and evidently not in high rise office buildings, as the construction of the great tower in Chicago implies. The value proposition it offered customers was quality, affordability and deliverability. There is a critical lesson in this story for all charities.
We have to remember what attracted others to our mission in the first place.
Clearly understanding what attracts others to want to support our causes is almost as important as the causes themselves. In fact, in some ways it is more important. Without support, our missions will not have sufficient resources to remain vital. It is, as it has always been, about our donors. It is about what is important to them and why they want to support us. It is not so much about who we say we are and what we say we do but who our donors say we are and how they describe what we do.
Our stories cannot just be about all the wonderful good things we do as charities. Our stories must be opportunities for engagement. In a real sense, our stories need to be their stories, focusing on all the good things that are happening because of the involvement and commitment of others. The donor and volunteer are the heart of our efforts, pumping life and hope into all we do.