The other day, I read an article on LinkedIn that discussed the troubles of Sears. This article intrigued me. Last year, there was a similar article about RadioShack. Shortly after that article was published, RadioShack closed most of its stores and filed for bankruptcy. I see a lot of similarities between these two organizations – they were both stuck in the past, and they couldn’t figure out how to escape their continuous slide into oblivion.
RadioShack, the once mighty electronics retailer, was built on the premise that consumers needed help navigating the complexities of technology. RadioShack was where the baby boomers’ dad would go to buy the TV antenna they’d attach to the roof of their house the first weekend they were off. Their sons and daughters would learn about CB’s and remote control gadgets. RadioShack was a destination everyone would go, on a quest to innovate their world and jump into the 20th century.
As the years went on, RadioShack never planned for the day that their uneducated consumer would become educated. The buyer who used to have a thousand questions about the technology they didn’t know they needed, now had the answers. RadioShack simply became another store to purchase something, instead of a destination for learning something.
RadioShack became a commodity in a quickly growing market, and their customers didn’t need training anymore, they wanted a deal. RadioShack could not get creative enough to capture the excitement of the customers they were losing. More importantly, they relied on the older generation for their stability.
The flaw - no one at RadioShack accepted the fact that generations die out, and migrating with the times was a trip they kept putting off.
So what is the commonality with Sears? Back in 1888 when Sears started, it was one man selling watches. He quickly learned if he had a catalog, he would have thousands of silent salesmen, all of them selling his watches. Sears would soon become the largest catalog retailer in the world. Sears would become the Amazon of its time.
Think about that, back in 1888, Sears would reach thousands of consumers, who would stand in line for the newest publication, and they would tear through the pages of this book with excitement. These customers would be introduced to the marvels of the inventions of the day. The farmer in Iowa could see things only people living in cities could see. The magic of a washing machine, the speed of the vacuum over the broom, the china which dressed the tables of the elite could now dress their tables.
The Sears catalog was a destination - people went there to learn about what the world had accomplished, and it gave the common man the ability to participate in the benefits these products provided.
Time changed, and so did Sears. The people changed, and they wanted to see the differences in person. The magic of new inventions lost its glory. The newness of things was replaced with the commodity of things; there was no more magic in the vacuum, and now the customer had choices of what vacuum they could buy. The automobile allowed consumers to travel into town more comfortably. Soon, the mall would define the town, and Sears would define the mall.
Sears brought the future to the present with the catalog, and then did it again with the brick and mortar store. Where Sears failed was in not recognizing the trends of the future and the power of technology.
If Jeff Bezos had been the president of Sears, would Amazon be called Sears? Jeff Bezos brought the future to the present. He saw the same potential in exciting people about the inventions of the 21st century as Sears saw in the 19th and 20th century. Jeff Bezos reinvented what Sears capitalized on a hundred years earlier. More ironically, I don’t think he even thought about Sears when he dreamed of what he would build.
Time will transform everything, and no one in the world has figured out how to stop time. When things need a different direction, that direction will always be found in the future. Pioneers dream of a better way for their customers to accomplish the means of getting what they want. Sometimes the future is a repeat of the principles of something that has died, been brought back, and modernized to compliment the present. One thing is for sure, “A company becomes obsolete when they focus on bringing the past to the future instead of bringing the future to the present.”
The challenge is recognizing what attributes from the past can be reinvented. In the early days of the Sears catalog, the future was the catalog; the mall would become a new future in a different present. The business you have today will not look the same tomorrow. Those who don’t understand that will find themselves joining the club of has-beens.
One could wonder what Sears thought of Amazon when they entered the shopping landscape - even though they literally had no physical stores in the public landscape; Jeff instead built them in what would be recognized as the cloud. The world has seen first-hand what happens when leaders of successful companies don’t get pigeonholed or allow themselves to be comfortable in the present. I look forward to watching Amazon change many more landscapes.
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