Years after Sears lost luster as a shopping destination, consumers of a certain age still get a faraway look in their eyes when they think about the company’s storied brands: DieHard batteries, Kenmore appliances and Toughskins children’s jeans, among them. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. (Remember the DieHard commercial about the car that sits for months on a frozen lake in International Falls and then starts?) But nostalgia obviously doesn’t pay the bills. That’s the challenge facing investor Edward Lampert, who has run Sears for years but has failed to re-establish its relevance.
In October, Sears’ parent corporation filed for bankruptcy protection. The retailer seemed in danger of going out of business after more than a century. Yet Lampert still sees something in Sears. He hopes to restart the engine, and to do so he bought the company’s assets, including stores and the DieHard and Kenmore brands, for $5.2 billion.
Lampert’s plans include opening some smaller Sears stores and reinvesting in some of those great brand names. The company is looking to put the DieHard name on everything from lawn and garden products to camping gear. As Sears regroups, Lampert is the subject of a newly filed lawsuit by Sears Holdings Corp., the former parent company, which alleges he stripped the company of $2 billion in assets before bankruptcy.
Legal matters aside, Sears still must answer the question of why it should exist in a retail environment where it’s often more convenient to buy something via smartphone and wait for delivery than drive to the mall. Sears, with its former catalog business and home delivery, was the Amazon of its day. But companies that dominate their industry are promised nothing over the long haul except that they’ll be challenged by newcomers with new ideas and perhaps a leaner cost structure. The rejoinder to that: Some companies that get knocked around by the competition do reinvent themselves. How about Sears? In the free-market system, someone’s always looking to offer a better product or a better deal. That’s great for consumers. Whether it’s great for Sears depends on what Lampert does next.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE