Sears, housing, and our economy

10 Jan

Sears & Roebuck…remember them?  If you do, you are probably in the same age group as me.

I’m no huge historian of Sears trivia, but when I was a kid, we had two fat catalogs that were staples in our house.  The Sears catalog and the “Monkey Wards” (Montgomery Wards) catalog.  At Christmas time, as children, we’d pour through the Christmas catalog, wishing and dreaming.

I think it was the same for my mother’s generation, and probably her mother’s as well.  Those catalogs had everything from underwear to roller skates and appliances in them.  I remember hearing stories from days gone by how the black & white pages were the best during the recycling process.  That’s when they became toilet paper in the outhouse, and I have to admit…I’m not sorry to have missed THOSE days.

I do know that long before I was born, Sears used to sell houses too.  Not like a real estate agent, but rather as kits that the proud new owner could assemble himself.  The kits came complete with plans and all of the lumber, siding, nails, windows, floors, etc.  They had a number of plans available, and once ordered, the complete house kit would be shipped to the nearest railroad station, where the new owner would pick it up in their wagon and bring home to assemble.  I guess it would be considered the ancestor of what is today regarded as “pre-fab”, manufactured, or modular housing.

Wouldn’t it be cool if such a thing was still available?  The novelty of having your house arrive in some crates, with pre-cut lumber and all of the other bits you needed to finish your house, right down to the paint?  Oh, and that it was made to conform to building codes too.

Yeah, dream on, right?

Still, with the new leaning towards smaller-is-better in terms of actual footprints, I think it’s an idea that could do with some revisiting.  The kits, built to UBC’s standards, would have a set of plans that you purchased prior to purchasing the house kit itself, to allow  you to get your permit to erect it.  Then, when you had your approval for the house to be built on your site, the kit would arrive.  Maybe there would be pre-assembled panels that bolted together, maybe it would be mostly cut-to-length lumber and other parts, but it could be done.  The directions would include which points you stop for the various inspections along the way too.  It could be done, I’m certain of it.

But Sears doesn’t sell house kits anymore.  I’m not sure if they even have a catalog anymore.  I don’t bother shopping there anymore either, and it seems that a lot of America has quit shopping there.  Have you stopped to think of why that has happened?

Even when my kids were young, Sears still did the catalog thing.  Sure, you could go into the local store and there were some things in stock to buy, but most of what I bought was ordered out of the catalog.  It arrived in the store for pickup a week or two after I ordered it.  I’d go in, pay cash for my order, and take the treasured item home with me. I ordered a number of things from Sears back then, from my boots for work to my daughter’s canopy bed.  It was easy, economical, and accessible.

Then, they closed down those Mom & Pop franchises, after they nationalized or whatever their repair process too.

Remember how reliable the Sears repair people used to be?  You called, you got a repairman out in a day or two at the latest.  Then, they did their standardizing thing, and the repairman wasn’t local and you had to call some distant call center to get a repairman, who wasn’t coming to fix that broken washer/refrigerator/dryer/whatever for at least a week.  In addition, try explaining where you are located when you live in a remote rural area to someone who has never visited your state.

They told me my address didn’t exist.  Repeatedly.

Then, when I finally DID get a repairman…he was late, rude, and generally made me very uncomfortable with being alone in the house with him.  That was the last Sears appliance I ever bought.  Catalog shopping and appliances were out with Sears, and with the nearest store suddenly over an hour away, in a much larger town, they now were competing solely with other department stores in the mall, in terms of availability, location, and prices.

For me, they didn’t make the cut.  Other department stores seemed to offer more, with more courteous service, for the same or less in terms of dollars.  I already disliked Sears, and they weren’t doing anything to win me back.

As the years went by, there were fewer and fewer reasons to go to Sears.   Then, the internet exploded onto the scene, and suddenly, catalog shopping was back, with new interactive online versions.  Payment was instant, shipping was faster, and companies could let us know within minutes if an item was in stock or not.  Who needed Sears anymore?

Well, it seems that Sears is reaping the benefits of their actions of the past.  Crappy customer service, shoddy imported goods, poor repair service habits, and boom…about all they had going for their company was the credit card.  With the economic bust we’ve had, credit wasn’t a very good business all of a sudden, as more and more people began defaulting on credit lines they could no longer afford.  Sears is in trouble, and now they are bringing in a new CEO.

Will it work?

I am not a financial expert, but I am a very experienced consumer.  Unless Sears begins to give the customer a reason to continue shopping with them, there won’t be much for repeat business.   Crappy customer service and shoddy imported goods are a dime a dozen these days–it’s everywhere.  America is about up to its gills in outsourced customer service and manufacturing too.

If Sears wants to survive, let alone thrive, in the modern times, maybe it better think about covering the basics and standing out from the crowd.  Sure, it’s cheaper to hire a call center in some foreign country, just like it is to have your goods manufactured in countries that have lower pay rates and fewer safety regulations to protect the workers, but that doesn’t mean that cheaper is better.

So what are the basics?  It starts with  your employees, that’s the ones that do customer service.  It’s the ones that make the difference in the stores and on the phone and online too.  Then, it’s what you are selling.  America wants decent goods.  It really does help if they are actually made in America.

What works for Sears is what made Mom & Pop stores across America thrive before the advent of cheap imported goods and massive discount corporations.  We’re struggling, we’re uncertain, and we want security and familiarity.  I’d rather go buy a vacuum cleaner from my neighbor than to go to a store where there are thousands of them lined up in a row and I may as well be receiving assistance from a robot as I make my choice.  I want someone who can answer my questions.  I want a company that promises and delivers service, whether it is during the purchase or when I need the item repaired.  I want to be treated fairly.

I am American.  I am a consumer.  I am their customer.

I would like to be treated with courtesy and respect.  Wouldn’t you?

I think it is long past time for these struggling stores and chains to begin recognizing that basic desire in their prospective and current customers.  There is a reason why a few companies are surviving and thriving, while others are not.  It’s not just about the lowest bottom line, despite the fact that most of us have a lot less to spend than we used to.  It’s about being treated fairly and decently too.  Going shopping should not make us feel like we’re “girding our loins” for a battle.  We shouldn’t be made to feel inferior.  When we have a complaint about something, we shouldn’t ever have a store manager claim we are an “uneducated consumer”.  (I have actually had that happen with one big box electronic store–she called me to chew me out for giving the store a poor rating after a negative experience with an ignorant clerk and very limited stock in the item I was looking for.)

Wake up, corporations.  The natives are getting restless.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: