Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reports of Sears’ death slightly exaggerated (for now)

Not many people are seeing the softer side of Sears these days, or the harder side for that matter. Tech Ticker reports that Jeff Matthews of hedge fund RAM Partners says the much anticipated Sears turnaround story may never happen because Sears Holding Corp. Chairman Edward Lampert doesn’t know how to run retail. Barron’s recently ran a story pointing out Sears’ many problems -- sagging sales, shabby stores, inattentive service, uncompetitive pricing – and suggesting the company’s stock price could fall another 50%. Beyond frightening. Credit Suisse analyst Gary Balter wrote an earnings note titled, “Put A Fork In It.”

Are the naysayers right? Is Sears done?

Sears has certainly gotten close to the max in cutting costs – there have been reports of only one sales associate per floor. In a world with where national big box stores provide competitively priced appliances on the one hand, and local dealers lavish personal attention and customer service on the other, Sears needs to be competitive on some dimension to survive, since there’s no net over the abyss of the middle.

Sears could focus on a smart reinvention its stores. The company still has some fabulously reputable brands, like Kenmore, DieHard, Craftsman, and Land’s End. Sears has actually made a number of good decisions lately – a plan to start selling toys and to offer a Christmas Club card, where consumers add value beforehand and get a 3% bonus on the funds. This has some old-fashioned, Big Book Catalog-style appeal. On the 21st century front, Sears’ MyGofer experiment, which merges online shopping and the ability to pick items up at a brick and mortar location, might allow Sears to unlock some value of all those Sears and Kmart stores. (But note to Sears: if you’re going to position yourself as a serious Internet player, make sure pranksters can’t rewrite your content and punk the living daylights out of you.)

It’s always hard to see around corners, but it’s an interesting question to ponder: what would a successful Sears look like in five years?
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