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Sears, once an appliance powerhouse, sees sales shrink despite growing demand

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Manufacturers have invested in better aesthetics and more technology, like "smart" washing machines that will send a smartphone alert when the spin cycle is done. Both design and gadgetry can bump up prices.

As the housing market has rebounded from the recession of a decade ago, much of the growth has come from higher-end homes, which should also spur sales of fancier appliances, Hoyler said. Mansion builders are unlikely to skimp on those finishing touches, and consumers priced out of expensive new homes might compromise by renovating and upgrading to midmarket, or "mass luxury," models.

Retailers with a bricks-and-mortar presence also benefit from the fact that most shoppers -- like the Cooks, who scouted products online before checking out top contenders at Lowe's -- still want to see large appliances in person before buying.

But consumers' preferred destinations for those purchases have been shifting.

In 2012, Sears and Sears Hometown together racked up 30.5 percent of dollars U.S. consumers spent on major appliances, according to Louisville, Ky.-based research firm Stevenson TraQline -- almost 12 percentage points more than runner-up Lowe's.

But last year, Lowe's overtook the Sears chains for the first time, winning 22.6 percent of consumers' major appliance dollars.

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Stevenson TraQline combined Sears and Sears Hometown in its consumer survey data because shoppers don't reliably distinguish between the two chains, which separated in a 2012 spinoff. If the chains are considered separately and sales to businesses, such as rental property managers, are included, Sears lost the top perch in 2013 and in 2016 slipped to third, behind Home Depot, according to Twice, a consumer electronics trade publication that used Stevenson TraQline data.

Sears and Sears Hometown still have a sizable share of the major appliances market, accounting for 19.4 percent of consumer dollars spent on items like refrigerators, washers and dryers in 2017, second only to Lowe's, according to Stevenson TraQline.

But the category isn't immune to the bigger challenges facing Sears Holdings Corp., which has lost more than $10.4 billion since 2011 and continues to struggle to turn around years of sliding sales and win back shoppers. It has closed hundreds of Sears and Kmart stores in an effort to stem the red ink and has said it expects to shutter 166 more in the first four months of this year.

While Sears' share of the appliance market has been shrinking, Lowe's, Home Depot and Best Buy are growing their shares. Consumers buying appliances often need more than just a new refrigerator, aiding retailers that can help with everything a shopper needs in a "life moment" like a renovation, Derochowski said.

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