Published On: July 23, 2018

Fear and Loathing in the Sears Home Theater Department

Published On: July 23, 2018
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Fear and Loathing in the Sears Home Theater Department

An inside look at the slow death of brick-and-mortar AV retail, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Protection Plans.

Fear and Loathing in the Sears Home Theater Department

  • Jeff Berman is one of a rare breed of AV industry writers who focuses on the business side of the market. In addition to a rich history of working in retail, he has written for M&E Daily, Smart Content News, Smart Screen News, and CDSA Cyber Security News, and also worked for six years as a contributing editor for the Consumer Technology Association's annual Digital America publication.

Now that my 2-year, part-time side job trying to sell home theater and other consumer electronics products has officially come to an end, I figured it's the perfect time to share some of my experience with readers. Because Sears may not be the first retailer that comes to mind when it comes to CE sales, but my time there taught me a thing or two about the state of brick-and-mortar electronics retail and the direction it's headed in general.

I'll take a guess that your first question might be: Why the hell did you pick Sears when it's been widely assumed for years by many folks that the store is near death and has been closing locations left and right across the country?

And my response to that understandable question boils down to this: It was conveniently located and one of the few places whose managers offered the flexibility I needed to work around my scheduling needs as a reporter. Not many retail jobs give you the flexibility to take days--even full weeks--off to cover conferences and other events in New York City and elsewhere.

As it turned out, educating Sears customers about 4K Ultra High-Definition TVs proved to be one of my favorite parts of the job. And many Sears customers had no idea what 4K/UHD were. Few of them knew what a smart TV was either.

But the Challenges Came Early...
From the very first day I went live as a first-time CE salesman at Sears, there were several challenges to successfully selling TVs, soundbars, and other products in such an environment.

First, there were very few models for customers to choose from in the store--a problem that only grew worse over time. When it came to TVs, the selection initially pretty much came down to low-end, RCA- or Seiki-branded dreck, along with a handful of better models from LG and Samsung. If a customer was looking for Sony or another brand, they were out of luck. I could either try to convince the customer to go with one of the brands we were carrying or point them in the direction of Target, Best Buy, P.C. Richard & Son, or another competitor. Of course, even though I was not working on commission, just an hourly salary slightly higher than minimum wage, I attempted to sell them on a model that we had.

This was not that difficult to do, believe it or not, because by that point, Samsung had become by far the top-selling TV brand in the U.S. and most of the customers shopping at the Sears CE department were local, middle-class consumers--many of them senior citizens who had been shopping at the store for years--who were perfectly happy with a Samsung TV ... as long as that Samsung TV was as cheap as or cheaper than the same model they could find at a rival nearby retailer and as long as that TV was actually in stock.

The average Sears CE department customer was not a tech or home theater enthusiast looking for the best TV model available. Whatever Samsung model we had in stock was usually good enough for even the most demanding customer I typically faced.

The price was often not a major issue because, even if we were selling a particular model at a higher price than another dealer (as was often the case), I was able to match the price if I saw that the same exact model was indeed available for purchase at another local retailer at that exact moment.

Smartphones came in handy to check TV pricing at other stores, although the challenge there was usually getting a decent-enough cellphone or Wi-Fi signal to quickly access retailers' websites. The basement CE department at Sears had weak cellphone service and the entire store had spotty Wi-Fi connectivity.

And the Challenges Came Often...
The one major catch on price matching was that I was not permitted to match the price of Amazon or any other online-only retailer. Local brick-and-mortar retailers only. In most but not all cases, that issue wasn't too difficult to overcome, because many Sears customers didn't want to buy a TV online.

Another selling point, meanwhile, was the Sears Shop Your Way rewards program. If a customer was enrolled in that customer loyalty program and happened to have a stockpile of rewards in his or her account from buying other stuff at Sears or Kmart, those points could be used to decrease the cost of the TV to the customer.

A harder sell: customers who were Shop Your Way "members" but didn't have many points available for use. Hardest of all was convincing those who weren't members to sign up just so they could earn points by buying the TV from us versus a rival retailer.

Sears, unfortunately, didn't make the rules of the rewards program clear enough to members and confused many of them on a regular basis by making "surprise" points--more recently replaced by "freecash." So, what's freecash exactly, you ask? Well, it's just like real cash ... if real cash could only be used for a limited period of time, only for certain products, and disappeared into vapor if you didn't use it fast enough.

I can't tell you how many times I found myself on the phone with the Shop Your Way customer service reps attempting to help angry and/or frustrated customers get points they--and often I--believed they were entitled to use on a purchase but weren't being permitted to for some vague reason. I have yet to find a major retailer with a more confusing customer loyalty program. Complicating things even more: we were often instructed by the powers that be to not tell customers that they had reward dollars available to them. I usually ignored that and told customers what they had anyway if they didn't ask.

The largest challenge to selling TVs, especially as the months went by, wound up being the lack of adequate inventory on the relatively few models we carried--a selection that started to shrink further during my time at the store. Several months into my time there, Sears introduced Kenmore-branded TVs. That didn't work out very well--at my store anyway--because few customers (understandably) wanted to serve as human guinea pigs for a new TV brand ... especially a new TV brand that often wasn't a whole lot cheaper than similar LG or Samsung TVs that were on sale and also when not a single Kenmore TV included smart streaming connectivity.

Although the powers that be at Sears never confirmed the reasons for the lack of TV inventory, you can take your pick from the likeliest possibilities: Sears was no longer a major mover of TVs in high volumes and the manufacturers would rather send more stock to dealers that stood a better chance of moving them; manufacturers--as widely reported--became increasingly afraid to do much business with Sears anymore because of its weak performance; and/or Sears couldn't afford to shell out too much on inventory, especially on a category that was not significant to its bottom line.

It's no secret that margins on TVs have shrunk so much in recent years that it's hard for any retailer to make much profit on each one sold, and that was certainly the case at Sears. Because of that, managers pushed me and the other CE salespeople to try as hard as possible to also sell TV buyers attachments, including HDMI cables, mounts or TV stands, soundbars and, most important of all for Sears, protection plans.

HDMI cables were typically the easiest extra item to sell TV buyers. After all, many of the customers didn't know whether they had an HDMI cable at home already and didn't want to have to return to the store if it turned out they needed one.

Leave it to Sears, however, to even make selling HDMI cables a challenge. Apparently stuck with a glut of Sears brand Alphaline HDMI cables that couldn't be moved fast enough, the powers that be decided to give one away for free with each TV sold as part of a deal that pretty much prevented us from selling any HDMI cables for the deal's duration. The store could have easily made more money by throwing the Alphaline HDMI cables into a garbage pail and return to selling the other HDMI cables as normal.

Soundbars were harder to sell. Although they've become popular, the main problem at Sears was, again, selection. We had any soundbar a customer could want ... as long as it was made by Samsung or Nakamichi, or sometimes LG. It was a similar challenge selling TV stands: lack of adequate selection.

The one main brand of mount we carried when I arrived was too expensive for the average Sears customer. Rivals tended to offer the same brand at a lower price or at least offered other, less-expensive brands as options. Sears later replaced that brand with inferior Ematic-branded mounts, which were somewhat easier to sell, but still more expensive than the mounts customers could find elsewhere.

Protection plans, of course, were the hardest of the main add-ons to sell with a TV. In addition to dealing with the usual hesitancy that many consumers had about buying a protection plan for any product, the challenge was compounded at Sears by the fact that its protection plans were almost universally more expensive--make that a lot more expensive--than the ones offered by rivals for the same TV models.

The challenge was also further compounded by the fact that many customers were afraid to buy a protection plan from a retailer they suspected may be going out of business before the plan was up.

Yes, Sears promised to cover more potential defects than rivals did. But that didn't make a difference. Especially to those customers--and there were many of them--who complained about bad experiences getting TVs and other electronics, as well as appliances, repaired and/or replaced when needed in a timely manner by Sears or other retailers. It was also widely reported towards the end of my time at Sears that many consumers were complaining about excessively long wait times for product service plans they had paid so much for.

Two more Sears offers made it somewhat easier to sell TVs and some other CE products: the ability to get at least $10 off a purchase by signing up for either a Sears store credit card or Sears Mastercard, as well as a leasing option that offered better financing terms than those offered by lease-to-own retailers such as Aaron's. There was also a layaway option that few customers were interested in.

Not a single customer I sold a TV to, meanwhile, opted to have Sears install one because of the incredibly high fees charged for even the most basic setup.

More Issues
By the time I arrived, Sears stores had already stopped selling most audio components, including receivers and satellite speakers, so chalk that up as one more reason why the average tech or home theater enthusiast was not shopping at Sears for electronics.

Sears stores had also already dropped computers and video game products long before I got there, giving consumers more reasons to not select Sears for their CE and tech purchases in general. There were also no Apple products whatsoever.

Sears started selling UHD Blu-ray players on its website long before it started selling them at our store. And even once we started carrying that new category, customers could opt for any model they wanted ... so long as it was one Samsung model. No matter. Few Sears customers wanted one, regardless of manufacturer.

It came as no surprise when, about a year ago, Sears significantly cut back the size of the CE department at the Hicksville store and then opted to pretty much drop CE altogether across many of its stores, from what I gather. The three remaining part-time CE salespeople at my store, including myself, were given the choice of moving to another department at the store or learning to sell appliances also and stay on at the combined appliance and CE department. In reality, it was an appliance department with a very small electronics area that included just a handful of TVs and mostly mediocre headphones, portable stereos, and wireless speakers. But I remained on and learned to sell appliances, which had its own challenges.

Then, early this year, I wasn't surprised to learn that the Hicksville store--an institution in the neighborhood for more than 50 years--would be shutting down completely in the next wave of Sears store closures.

So, here I am now. Back to writing on a full-time, freelance basis as I say farewell to retail. Despite all the challenges I faced selling CE at Sears, leaving was bittersweet because some aspects of the job were enjoyable, and I learned a lot from the other side of the CE sales equation that I never knew before.

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