The Lost Why: The Sears Problem

The Lost Why: The Sears Problem

Mar 23, 2017 - 3 minute read

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” - Simon Sinek

Businesses operating in a fast-paced world toss their why out the window in an effort to expand, increase shareholder value, or just make a quick buck. Not always, but very often, this is a recipe for customer dissatisfaction, financial losses, and eventually closure. The prime example of this lost why phenomenon is Sears, or as it should be, Sears Roebuck. Sears started out as a company dedicated to the belief that regardless of location, high quality, reasonably priced goods could be brought to you. The Sears catalog, beginning in 1886 and for a very long time thereafter, dedicated itself to opening the world to everyone; they were a revolutionary game changer, by-passing the overpriced, limited selection of the general store, and going right to the consumer. Their why? To challenge the status quo of the market place by changing the way people shop, and they did just that.

Flash forward to 2017: Sears has downsized from 4,500 stores in 2010 to 1,500, no longer has the catalog, and will probably go out of business unless the remember their why — fast. So where, how did Sears fail? Was it the stores, was it the catalogue, was it K-Mart? “K-Mart sucks,” parroted Raymond Babbitt in 1988 (accurate, even then) and the company only continued its descent until Sears’ acquisition so many years later. But, it wasn’t the acquisition of another chain of stores that sucked, the decision to have stores, or even the shutting down of the catalog that built the company’s coffin.

It’s rather simple: Sears, Roebuck & Co., forgot who they were: the core idea of challenging the marketplace and the way people shop. Innovation is by no means exhausted — it never is — and most importantly, the why should never be forgotten. So what should Sears have done, or should they do now? It’s simple, obvious, and overlooked. They need to go back to their why.

During the 1990s, Sears had a huge opportunity to innovate and fall back on their founding principles of challenging the market place. With the age of the Internet and the .com boom, Sears and the catalog could have been put online, expanded, and the company done what they used to do best: bypass the general store (by then..the mall), offer quality goods at an affordable price with more options and deliver it to you, regardless of location. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s known as Amazon. If you look at the history of company “whys”, Sears is a failure. They should be Amazon and should be a website for booking river tours. Sears Roebuck was uniquely positioned, had functioned in an Amazon-type way during its most successful years, and were a game-changing American institution — but they forgot their why. Instead, they didn’t just become the general store, they became its landlord and competed like any every other company.

So what’s the lesson? Don’t forget your why, it’s easy to forget, easy to cut corners or compromise when things get big or even when things get hard. But look at Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs forced Apple back to their challenge the status quo roots and saved a dying company, Sears can do the same. Return to the principles that made you who you are, don’t forget them, and never stop innovating.

By Ion Design Co. Creative Director Nathan Dawdy.