Don’t blame catalogues for Sears’ failure

October 31st, 2017 | by Steve Falk, President of Prime Data |

Here’s a fun fact — my very first job was delivering hundreds of Sears catalogues, towed in my wagon, to houses in Aurora with my sibs and a few friends. Sometimes we recruited my mom to drive the heavier ones closer to homes. (Thanks Mom!) I probably delivered the wish book you see in this article.

Maybe that’s why the retail giant’s recent bankruptcy and subsequent liquidation has been on my mind more than it should be.

Certainly there’s been a lot of coverage in the press. And everyone seems to have a theory as to what happened.

I suppose the easiest way to explain away the failure is that Sears was a catalogue retailer that couldn’t adapt its operations in an increasingly competitive environment dominated by online stores.

It would be easy. But it would also be wrong.

I suggest it wasn’t a catalogue mindset — Sears Canada didn’t even have a Spring/Summer catalogue this year — but rather an example of a company that never really identified who the ideal customer was for its physical retail operations. There are companies that win with lower prices and companies that win with a better retail experience.

Sears tried to be a hybrid of both and it simply didn’t work.

If you go back 100 years, Sears was once the physical embodiment of what Amazon is now. You could find cars, houses and just about anything else you wanted in its catalogues.

And when the Christmas Wish Book landed with a thud on doorsteps across the country, kids would have permission to start dreaming about what the holidays might bring.

But with digital technology driving innovation, Sears decided the catalogue was a “legacy system”  in need of a revamp. In 2016 Strategy Online interviewed then-COO Becky Penrice. In the article it stated:

“[Sears is) reducing the size and frequency of its flyers and catalogues, but also the amount of products shown in them, making them less of a vehicle for transactions and more of a lifestyle magazine-inspired platform that shows how products can be incorporated into a consumer’s life.”

So the catalogue essentially became a lifestyle magazine — with less stuff to buy.

I know that catalogues still work. And here’s an example right from our office.

One of our marketing guys has 3 little girls. Last year, one of the hot toys was a Maple Lea doll (a local Newmarket company, in fact) — which he ordered online. Just last week a physical catalogue filled with clothes and accessories was delivered to his house.

His daughters dove in, picking out the dresses, bags and outfits they were going to ask Santa to bring them this year.

So apparently the catalogue is still something kids (and adults) can get excited about.

It also shows how smart companies use data (remember the original dolls were purchased online) to send targeted, addressed marketing pieces to customers.

So don’t blame a “catalogue mindset” for Sears’ demise. The reality is that the retailer was never able to define an ideal customer or figure out how to make all the different sales and marketing channels work together.

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