Sears Turns to Corporate Blog to Defend Itself
Much-Maligned Retailer Has Been Under Fire for Poor Results, Store Conditions
With its earnings continuing to tank and its future called into question, Sears Holdings Corp. on Wednesday turned to an old standby for a company pleading its case to the media, analysts and consumers: the corporate blog.
In a post, Leena Munjal, SVP of Sears Holdings, head of the retailer's customer experience and integrated retail teams, addressed the conditions at its 2,000 Sears and Kmart stores, which had been the focal point of a recent online brewhaha.
"As much as we want to get every experience right, we know we are not perfect. However, make no mistake; we understand that in the hyper-competitive retail industry, when we aren't perfect we have to get it right, and quickly," Ms. Munjal wrote.
The main issue, of course, is that Sears hasn't improved corporate earnings and sales "quickly." Since merging with Kmart in 2005, Sears has seen 27 straight quarterly sales declines, according to a recent Blackstone Equity Research report. Sears said Thursday year-to-date same-store sales are down 3.9% and quarter-to-date comps dropped 7.4%. The company sees a fourth-quarter net loss between $250 million and $360 million, compared to a loss of $489 million last year. Its shares plunged in after-hours trading. Chairman-CEO Edward Lampert in a new post said the sales "are not nearly what we want them to be."
The blog posts follow a Twitter firestorm last week and into this week, which was stoked by unflattering pictures of Sears stores taken by Brian Sozzi, CEO of Belus Capital Advisors, that were posted to Twitter and put in a TheStreet.com article written by Rocco Pendola. Chris Brathwaite, VP-corporate communications at Sears Holdings, Mr. Pendola and Mr. Sozzi, who is also a columnist for TheStreet.com, went back and forth over Twitter about the fairness of posting such pictures. Mr. Sozzi had posted Sears store photos to his firm's website in October.
Sears said the timing of the blog's launch was coincidental.
On Thursday, Mr. Brathwaite, who is in charge of the blog, said he wants to use it to showcase "some really cool things that are happening at the company."
Sears is "going into something that is like a rebirth," he said. He pointed to the firm's loyalty program, Shop Your Way. Now four years old, it has "exploded" in the past two years. "We're changing. We're transforming into a company that is trying to become a membership company. Not like Costco, but one that builds lifetime relationships with customers," Mr. Brathwaite said.Mr. Brathwaite said Sears has been working on the blog since late November and that he has requested senior management—including Mr. Lampert—contribute to it. Stories from store managers and updates from senior management are also planned, but he said it won't attempt to be all positive news. He said the blog is in soft launch but he hopes it will be updated frequently.
According to Mr. Brathwaite, two-thirds to three-fourths of Sears sales are now driven by Shop Your Way members.
"Our operational performance may have obscured the real traction we're seeing in our Shop Your Way program and other aspects of our transformation, but it's important for you to know that we are focused on improving the customer and member experience every day," wrote Ms. Munjal in her blog post.
Mr. Sozzi said in a phone interview that the first blog post "continues the tone of CEO Eddie Lampert that, yes, we have stores and we are putting some money into them." He contends, however, Sears is only putting money into its best stores. In response, Mr. Brathwaite said Sears is investing in stores where the company can see a return and that over half of the storebase has Wi-Fi and uses tablets at checkout.
Mr. Sozzi added that if Sears wants to compete in the online world it has to think about store experience first. "If the consumer views it as depressing to go into the store and they don't think about it in a positive light when they leave the stores," he said, then they're not going online to shop at Sears either.
From Mr. Lampert's blog post: "We continue to leverage our strengths as the distinction between physical and online retailing blurs. The fact that these results are obscured by our overall performance doesn't make them any less real or any less central to the needed transformation of our company."