Why “Sears light” concept stores are focused on appliances

Peggy Lowe Jun 21, 2019
The Sears Home & Life store is one of three in the U.S., and focuses on appliances and Sears’ well-known brands. Peggy Lowe/KCUR

Why “Sears light” concept stores are focused on appliances

Peggy Lowe Jun 21, 2019
The Sears Home & Life store is one of three in the U.S., and focuses on appliances and Sears’ well-known brands. Peggy Lowe/KCUR

The facelift is obvious the minute you step into a Sears Home & Life store: Big video screens flash from behind a welcome desk, where two people in blue polo shirts greet customers.

This new concept store opened Memorial Day in Overland Park, Kansas, one of just three so far. The others are in Lafayette, Louisiana, and Anchorage, Alaska.

General Manager Richard Herring said this concept store is much smaller than a traditional Sears outlet — gigantic operations averaging 150,000 square feet and often serving as mall outlets.

“This is like 10 to 15,000 square foot, so it’s a smaller footprint,” he said, “but it’s more intimate.”

Sears was the iconic retailer known for appliances and tools before it filed for bankruptcy last fall. While it’s still around, Sears emerged after a restructuring as a much smaller chain owned by its former CEO Eddie Lampert. The new concept offers old-school goods under its famous brand, while using brand-new tactics borrowed from other retailers.  

Sears Home & Life focuses on just a fraction of what the larger stores offered in the past —  there’s a large space for mattresses, dishwashers, air conditioners, refrigerators and stoves. And planners took a page from Ikea by placing the appliances in a simulated decorated kitchen, fitting them in around cupboards.

“So it’s another visual: This is what it’s gonna look like inside your home, and space is a real good issue for a lot of people,” Herring said. “So we have the measure just to make sure it’s going to fit.”

Richard Herring, general manager of Sears Home & Life in Overland Park, Kansas, stands at the store’s welcome desk. (Peggy Lowe/KCUR)

The company’s new Home & Life stores offer a tactile experience that online shopping cannot, said Peter Boutros, chief brand officer of Sears and Kmart, which is owned by Sears.

But what about all the stuff that people expect to see in a Sears store? That has come up with customers, Herring said.

“They come in and they go, ‘Man, you don’t have any tools, you don’t have any clothes,’” he said. “We had one guy, ‘Do you have a kayak?’ No, but we have what’s called the ‘Search Bar.’”

The Search Bar is a computer near the front of the store where people can order things not available on site, which then will be delivered to the store for free. Customers must then pick up their purchases. There’s also a small selection of other brands.  

The store is trying to appeal to baby boomers, who are familiar with Sears brands, like Kenmore appliances, Boutros said.

“Boomers trust Sears. They grew up with Sears,” Boutros said. “We’ve all heard stories about people 55 and older, how they’ve had their Kenmore washing machines from Sears for 30 years. So we want to tap into that trust.”

Since some boomers are downsizing, Sears is also hoping to attract what it calls “young, forming families” who are upsizing into homes. But will those younger shoppers think of Sears?

Matt Campbell, a Kansas City homeowner, said he buys appliances at the big box stores, like Home Depot or Best Buy, and he hasn’t been to a Sears in years.

“I know my dad was always, ‘You go to Sears for tools,’ but that’s been a long, long time ago,” he said.

More than a decade ago, Sears had about 900 “full line” stores that offered appliances but also apparel, some automotive products and home and garden equipment. Now there are more than 200 of those stores left around the country, according to a Sears spokeswoman.  

So will this new concept work for the struggling company? Atul Kulkarni, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said it feels like a last-ditch effort to salvage the brand.

“You could say Sears Light because it’s 10% of what it used to be in the past — that’s one way to look at it,” Kulkarni said.

Sears executives say they’re committed to this concept for the long haul —and they’re getting ready to open four more Home & Life stores across the country.

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