Sears TV incident brings out some anger Sears incident brings out anger

CONSUMING INTERESTS

June 08, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG

There's nothing like feeling betrayed by an old and trusted friend to get your blood going.

Last week, I said Sears kicked the pooch by bungling its response to Michael Burnett's repeated pleas to fix or replace his faulty 2 1/2 -month-old Sylvania LCD TV. By the overwhelming feedback I've received, you would have thought I said that Sears tortured, maimed and then killed the pooch.

Burnett's tale of canceled appointments, rescheduled service calls and corporate confusion elicited a level of anger, resentment, frustration, hurt and bitterness from readers that I haven't seen in two years of writing this column - far above the reaction even to other repeat corporate offenders who have botched customer service as badly, if not worse, than Sears did in this case.

"I, like the man in the article, bought all of our appliances for our new home from Sears believing that they made quality products and stood by them," wrote Meg deFries of White Hall. She said Sears failed to fix her washer, forcing her to drag soiled diapers to a laundromat for six weeks. "I am of a different ilk now and gladly voice my opinion and experience to others. Thank you, again, for making me feel less individually abused by a big company."

Dave Hall of Harford County said that in persistent inquiries into the status of his rebate, he found that "the people that answer the phone are helpless and frustrated. It must be horrible to have a job with no tools or methods to accomplish your job title. One person actually said, 'I do not know why I am working here.'"

Reader Robyn Costello's "horrific" attempts to get service for the appliances she purchased from Sears made her reach the conclusion that "there appears to be a universal pattern that Sears is clueless to correct, perhaps because they're blissfully unaware they have a problem - the 'duh' syndrome is firmly entrenched."

In a letter to Sears Holdings' corporate office in Chicago, Fred Schwaner recounted countless broken promises to repair a TV, hot water heater and freezer he purchased from the retailer.

"I am so tired of Sears' deceptions and lies from the [technicians] and your 1 (800) repair number," Schwaner wrote in his e-mail, which he copied to me. "Please convince me why I should continue with this aggravation?"

And that's just a smattering of the e-mails I received.

Almost all of the people I heard from swore never to do business with Sears again.

More interestingly, almost all of them also sounded deeply wounded and betrayed.

Such passion got me thinking that deep down in our consumer psyche, being wronged by Sears feels so much more offensive than being wronged by the giant super-savings chain down the street because, years ago, Sears convinced us that it was far better than that.

After all, Sears showed us that all you wanted and needed could be found within its doors or catalog. Sears got us used to it going above and beyond to fix the occasional problems that popped up. And most of all, Sears treated customers like family or old friends who deserved the best.

As Bob Dewey wrote so eloquently, "Long before malls, big box stores and the Internet, generations of parents would show their kids the Sears catalog come November because 'that's what Santa Claus builds up at the North Pole. Whaddya want for Christmas, son?!' And the parents bought Kenmore appliances because they were one of the first and most reliable brands mass produced.

"Maybe that's part of the reason why some people had such a negative reaction" to Sears in last week's column, Dewey said. "Sears is a legendary American business with a storied past. It's not a phone company, cable TV, or airline company which we're accustomed to bashing."

Three years ago, struggling Kmart purchased struggling Sears to build on both companies' strengths. What they created was an even bigger struggling company with no sense of identity. Cutbacks in consumer spending, high energy prices and the poor economy have made it worse.

Given such ailments, readers said they weren't surprised that Sears Holdings Corp. lost $56 million in its first quarter. Furthermore, Sears domestic sales at stores open at least a year declined 9.8 percent, and Kmart's fell 7.1 percent.

"There doesn't seem to be anyone who knows how to handle customers and their problems," wrote Bruce Wilcox, a retired Sears employee who spent 41 years working at the local and corporate level. "The word, 'no,' did not appear when working complaints years ago. The customer was always right. Give them what they want and you have a friend for life, and your business grows. Today everything is lost to the name of profit and 'systems.' The right hand has no idea what the left is doing. Thus the current position of a once great retailer."

No one expects retailers to treat consumers as if they're always right anymore, especially since we know shoppers are capable of being wrong, too. But what consumers can and should expect is good service, good communication, fairness and follow through when things go wrong.

Sears has forgotten how it built its reputation. What a tragic mistake, since customers' memories have not faded quite so fast.

Maybe that's why Stephanie Arnold of Baltimore said last week's column prompted her to "e-mail Sears to inform them that potential customers do take this kind of information to heart. Maybe, if more people provide feedback, there might be some change."

Nostalgia makes all of us hope Sears doesn't go the way of Hecht's, Hechinger and Hutzler's. But nostalgia alone won't keep us coming back.

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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