MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Sharmila Chatterjee
From The Hill
When I arrived in the U.S. for graduate school in the mid-1980s, I asked my host family in a Philadelphia suburb where to shop to outfit my dorm room. They didn’t skip a beat: “Sears,” they said. “It has everything you need.”
To say that I was in awe of Sears would be an understatement. Having grown up in small cities in India that were dominated by mom and pop stores, I’d never seen anything like it. I bought pillows and bed sheets; a hot pot, microwave, a mini fridge; and also rain boots, socks, and a pair of earrings. I remember thinking, “This is the American store of my dreams.”
So last week’s news that Sears filed for bankruptcy struck a personal chord. The company has been under pressure for years: shuttering stores, jettisoning assets and taking on ever more debt. Finally, facing a $134 million payment that it could not afford, Sears capitulated.
The main culprit, according to media coverage, was the rise of online shopping and Amazon. Amazon, of course, has become the familiar villain in these tales — allegedly responsible for the death of many once-dominant American retailers, from Toys “R” Us to Sports Authority to Radio Shack.
But considering e-commerce accounts for only 9 percent of all retail sales, that explanation rings hollow. The truth is, Sears’s bankruptcy is of its own making. Its management, led by Eddie Lampert — Sears’s chairman and its biggest individual creditor and shareholder, made a series of missteps that ultimately crippled the iconic chain.
These include focusing too narrowly on cutting costs at the expense of investing in the in-store experience, spinning off key brands and competing on price.