We Have Met Retail’s Future, and it is Sears. (Yes, Sears.)

Remember when retailers lived from one individual success to another and, if something wasn’t working, they just made sure not to do it again the next year?  If that were still the way things worked in retail, it would be easy to feel sorry for Sears.  What with Best Buy, Lowe’s, and Home Depot gnawing at its once robust appliance business and it’s softer side getting scratched beyond recognition by nimble vertical players and brand-crazed mid-tiers—Sears hasn’t made a highly-publicized brand deal since it snatched up sensible Lands End.  

Yep, calling Sears clueless would be an understatement if we still lived in the era of play to win; however, in the new world of play to participate, where individual decisions are judged by how they support a larger brand vision, Sears is crazy like a contrarian fox.  That’s why I’ve continued to trot Sears out as one to watch in my presentations over the last couple of years--Sears is quietly incubating and activating the business models and platforms that will transform retail’s future, even as it appears to lose at the ones everyone watches now. 

Sears’ chairman, Eddie Lampert, amassed his fortune by monetizing what is hidden in plain sight, so it follows that judging Sears based on its tattered window dressing should be beside the point.  Pull back the curtains, though, and an ingenious outside-in strategy is unfolding.  If Sears isn’t the most distinguished retailer operating on terra firma it may soon be, and in the meantime, it’s surely poised to become one of the most influential everywhere else.  

Sears, like every other big box retailer left standing, is all over mobile apps, product reviews, recommendations, and social communities; the stealthy game-changers that have my attention are the following: 

1.  MARKETPLACE AT SEARS.COM – Sure, Walmart was the first terrestrial to announce that brands that aren’t currently available in Walmart will be added to its web offerings, but Sears isn’t just integrating a million or so web-unique items with nary a call-out, they are branding the effort and doing the full Amazon by actively courting brands that want to leverage their platform. 

Also, rather than portraying the Marketplace as a velvet rope brand vetting, Sears is encouraging participation and making the process, and the benefits, as easy as one, two, three via its “seller portal.”  Walmart has expanded its offerings through selective brand alliances; Target and others’ online SKU explosions create an “endless aisle.”  Sears has done all of that AND created a platform that generates passive revenue. 

2.  MYGOFER – Site-to-store is one thing, Mygofer is quite another.  Through Mygofer, shoppers can create lists and shop, then have those items pulled and waiting for them at select Kmart stores.  Mygofer’s front page sets the tone immediately: contemporary, clean and intuitive, with products organized by usage and need states.  With Mygofer, Sears is achieving online what everyone is trying to perfect in-store.  

And once again, outside merchants and local businesses are encouraged to sell their wares on Mygofer.  At order cut-off time each day, Mygofer lets merchants know what has been ordered from their store, and then they can ship it or drop it off to a Mygofer-enabled Kmart store for pick up. 

The site also features live chat . . . On my first visit, “Jennifer” was available to answer my questions within one minute of hitting the chat button and she couldn’t have been more peppy and helpful as she answered every annoying question that I had about the service. 

This one knocks it out of the park . . .  Localization?  Solved!  Business-friendly PR?  Solved!  Multi-channel shopper insights?  Solved!  Personal attention and service?  Solved! Passive revenue for Sears?  Solved (again)! 

3.  SEARS THE LICENSOR – “I believe that the Craftsman and Kenmore customer is broader than the Sears customer,” said Mr. Lampert.  Pause and absorb . . . That’s probably true of a lot of well-developed private brands and yet retailers are still, by and large, denying them to anyone who won’t go on their site or set foot in their stores.   Well, not all retailers . . . Safeway actually beat Sears to the retailer-as-licensor punch by allowing select grocers including Albertson’s, Brookshire Brothers, and others to have access to its O Organics food line; however, the $1.8 billion entity that houses the Sears’ Craftsman, DieHard, and Kenmore brand triumvirate promises to spread its tentacles far wider.  Sears’ licensing agreement with Schumacher Electric, which brings DieHard-branded items to non-Sears stores in the U.S. and Latin America, and its recent deal with Ace Hardware for Craftsman tools are just the tip of the iceberg.  So, while J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, and Macy’s obsess on bringing exclusive brands into their stores and Best Buy creates and markets private labels where once there were none, Sears will just dust off the perfectly good ones it already has, show them off in an exploding number of venues, then sit back and count the royalty checks.  Creating new brands and tethering to others' brand cache is so 2009. 

When asked during the recent shareholders’ meeting whether brick-and-mortar stores would even be necessary going forward, Mr. Lampert replied “It’s hard to believe that the stores won’t be important for a long period.” Gee, couldn’t he have been a bit more emphatic?  I can see Sears and Kmart stores (at least some of them) morphing into dedicated pick-up hubs, category-specific boxes, pure service and demo plays, and temporary pop-ups.  The stores will become as flexible as virtual space already is.  I don’t think Mr. Lampert would have it any other way and won't it be fascinating to see what happens when his attention finally swings back to the stores . . . you know, the ones that will support all that other stuff?!

After walking shareholders through the Sears website, he said “We don’t want to wake up some day and find we missed the big trick.”   I think he can sleep soundly . . . and that you can as well, so long as you don’t place all of your bets on better dressed pigs.