Sears: Will it be Lights Out or Back in the Groove with Customers?

Sears, once a stalwart American brand, is currently a shadow of its former self, having fallen on hard times with both shoppers and investors alike. Back in 2001, Sears was tied for second among department and discount stores in terms of customer satisfaction, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Since then, the chain has managed to beat the industry average only once in 14 subsequent years.

Looking at the last decade of ACSI scores and stock performance for Sears, the period from 2009 to 2013 shows customer satisfaction trending upward by 4% while stock price falls over 57%. The reason for this outcome lies in the connection between stable, or even increasing, customer satisfaction and a dwindling customer base.

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Customer satisfaction plays a vital role in competitive industries in large part because consumers can vote with their feet. That is, customers who do not like a company’s service can simply go elsewhere. The ACSI measures a company’s customer satisfaction by talking directly to the customers themselves. In situations where unhappy consumers leave en masse, the only remaining customers are the ultra-loyal.

In the case of Sears, these loyal customers are likely patronizing the store for reasons other than satisfaction, such as price, proximity, or tradition. In such situations, a rise in customer satisfaction can indeed coincide with a decrease in revenues—a red flag in terms of future financial performance. As dissatisfied customers defect to competitors, the diminished pool of customers includes a greater percentage of shoppers who like the experience for a specific reason. During the period 2009 to 2013, the rise in customer satisfaction for Sears coincides with a steady depletion in sales.

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In recent years, even the most loyal Sears shoppers have seen their satisfaction decline. The company now ranks second-to-last among department and discount stores. With an ACSI score of 71, Sears beats only Wal-Mart at the low level of 66. In comparison, industry leaders Nordstrom and Dillard’s score 80 or higher. It is no surprise to see Sears report terrible earnings for the third quarter of 2016. For Sears, the challenge ahead lies with improving the customer experience. Unless the company succeeds in becoming more customer-centric, it is unlikely that Sears’ faltering financial position will turn around.