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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

When One plus One Equals Not-Quite-Two

It’s not like they aren’t trying.

The Sears Essentials store, a by-product of Eddie Lampert’s ambitious attempt to shmoosh two aging retailers together and come up with a store people actually want to shop, is not, as I have discussed before, all that bad.

Recall that “Essentials” (an appealing but bizarre name, when you think about it: this is not a convenience store we’re talking about, but a big old apparel-to-corn flakes general merchandise store) are refurbished ex-Kmart locations rebranded with the Sears logo and Sears-branded merchandise added to the mix.

Having visited one store in the upper reaches of rural Connecticut (see “Eddie to the Rescue,” September 9, 2005), I wanted to check out its brethren in the freeway-clogged suburbs of Los Angeles.

I found one on the outskirts of Corona off Interstate 15, in a very typical this-used-to-be-a-decent-area old Kmart location. It was a relatively easy store to spot because of the large Sears Essentials sign on the building…and because of the rather desperate looking young Sears employee standing on the sidewalk waving a “Sears Sale!” sign at passing motorists.

Now that I have seen them on both coasts, I think I can safely generalize about them.

For starters, the Sears Essentials stores are clean, well-lighted places with bi-lingual signage and plenty of merchandise—nicer by far than the old Kmart you knew and did everything in your power to avoid entering.

The Sears house brands—Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances—give the stores a flavor entirely different from the previous failed occupant, while the electronics department is now bigger and more coherent than the old Kmart version, with row after row of flashy TV screens along the wall. And there is plenty of Martha Stewart merchandise everywhere, from towels to $250 artificial Christmas trees.

The theory behind Essentials is that by expanding distribution of widely recognized (and still trusted) Sears house brands into Kmart locations that previously failed to generate enough business to justify the lease payments, Sears Holdings would generate higher sales and transform a liability—a long-term lease in a mediocre location—into an asset. The basic idea being that one plus one would equal three, maybe four.

Indeed, like its counterpart in northeastern Connecticut, this L.A. Essentials store had shoppers—not nearly so many as the clean, well-lighted, terrifically merchandized Target store a few miles away, but it had some shoppers.

Yet as I walked around the store and saw the merchandise placed with its usual Sears cluelessness, I found myself understanding why the whole thing seems so inconsequential: by opening Sears Essentials stores in old Kmart locations, all that has happened is…Sears has opened a bunch of new, mediocre stores.

That’s all.

Meanwhile Target, Wal-Mart, Costco and the rest continue to open well-merchandised stores with great prices where people actually want to shop, without requiring employees to stand on the sidewalk waving “Sale!” signs.

The math behind Sears Essentials? One plus one equals not-quite-two.

Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up

© 2005 Jeff Matthews

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations.

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