The downward spiral at Sears (SHLD) just might end up on a business school lesson plan about how quickly a CEO can ruin an American icon.
When CEO Eddie Lampert reported financial results for Sears Holdings' first-quarter on Thursday morning, he blamed warmer-than-normal winter weather for the company's dismal results. If that were true, then the weather must have been lousy for the past several years, given the company's ongoing decline.
The company has lost so much ground with consumers -- and financial strength as a result -- that one of the few analysts still covering it predicted earlier this month that Sears may face a "liquidity event" later this year. The management of Sears as a retail operation has been so dismal that it raises questions about what Lampert, a financier, has had in mind for the business. Many shoppers would argue that revitalizing the stores hasn't been one of them.
"Sears is, first and foremost, a retailer. Until and unless it starts acting like one by focusing on the fundamentals of its proposition it will not arrest its long-term decline," wrote Neil Saunders, chief executive of Conlumino, in a Thursday research note.
While it's true that the warm winter weather impacted retailers other than Sears, the retailer said fourth-quarter same-store sales declined 7.1 percent, far steeper than its rivals. Walmart, which is in its own period of reinvention and investment, reported that same-store sales rose 0.6 percent during the fourth quarter.
Over the past two years, total sales at Sears have plunged by almost one-third, according to Saunders. "There is worryingly little evidence to suggest a material improvement in either the performance of Sears or Kmart," the discount retailer owned by Sears Holdings, Saunders noted. He added that the company appears "to be in a perpetual state of decline."
It may be that Lampert genuinely believes that he can still save Sears, but a turnaround is looking increasingly unlikely. The retailer is losing customers' affection, with the American Customer Satisfaction Index reporting this month that Sears has slipped from 76 points to 71 points in customer satisfaction in the past five years.
Even worse, only 1 percent of women shoppers say Sears is their preferred apparel store, ranking the store even lower than Goodwill, according to a recent survey from Prosper Analytics & Insights.
While Lampert insisted in a letter sent to shareholders on Thursday that he is spending a "significant" amount of his time "on transforming Sears Holdings into a company whose primary goal is to serve its members and help them manage their lives," shoppers apparently aren't seeing the evidence, and are choosing to spend their own time and money elsewhere.
Lampert, for the uninitiated, brought a hedge-fund-style model of management to Sears. A fan of Ayn Rand and a believer in the free markets, he told division chiefs to run their divisions individualistically, believing that would help boost sales and profits at each unit, according to Bloomberg. Instead, the units started infighting, with one executive telling the publication that it lead to a "warring tribes" environment.
While there have been successful efforts, such as Sears' loyalty program Shop Your Way, the future doesn't appear to be bright.
"It is very hard to see an end game other than the continued closure of large swathes of the store fleet over the medium to longer term," Saunders noted. "This is especially so since the company is now firmly focused on cost reduction activities."
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