Former Sears exec says retailer has been on “death spiral”

Sears, once America’s largest employer, is now fighting to stay in business. Its chairman, Eddie Lampert, promised again Tuesday to line up financing to save the classic retailer. His new offer goes to an auction on Monday, competing against other bidders who want to shut down the company.

Sears had just under 700 stores and about 68,000 employees, as of late last year. It filed for bankruptcy in October during a record wave of retail store closings.

It was the original everything retailer, delivering the world to your doorstep decades before anyone ever got a box from Amazon. But after navigating the shift to department stores and malls, Sears stopped innovating, according to former Sears executive Mark Cohen, now director of the retail studies program at Columbia Business School.

“The company has been on a death spiral for well over a decade,” Cohen said. “It lost sight of the fact that change is a constant.”

While he blames poor management and stiff competition for the demise of Sears, it’s not the only company that has failed to change with the times.

From 2012 through 2017, U.S. ecommerce sales nearly doubled. In the last two years, at least 200 million square feet of retail space closed – including dozens of stores from J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Toys R Us, and Kmart, which merged with Sears in 2005.

Sears itself has shuttered more than 3,000 stores worldwide in the past decade. Sears, which once employed as many as 350,000 people, offered workers a path to the middle class and customers a little bit of luxury at middle class prices.

Bobby Jones told “CBS Sunday Morning” he worked at Sears for 35 years, enjoying wages and benefits that many of today’s retail workers can only dream of.

“It was prestige to say, ‘Yes, I work for Sears,'” Jones said.

How Sears went from innovation to bankruptcy

While the company’s decline is historic, it does not mean the death of retail, said CBS News financial contributor Mellody Hobson.

“You have lots of retailers that are thriving out there. And you have some, like Amazon, that are building brick and mortar stores like Whole Foods, which they acquired,” Hobson said.

But should any of today’s retail giants fail to adapt, Hobson said they, too, risk falling.

“You have to be able to play in lots of lanes. Online, with brick and mortar, you have to have good products that the customer wants and stay competitive,” Hobson said.

Last month, a court approved bonuses of up to $25 million for Sears executives willing to work through the bankruptcy. The company’s frontline employees, meanwhile, are worried they may walk away with nothing. The hedge fund hoping to buy Sears said it expects to reinstate the severance program Sears had in place prior to its bankruptcy filing.

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