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

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Lowe's attributes its sales growth to the appliance "suites" it has added to its stores, which show customers how a coordinating set of appliances might look in a kitchen, Rob Posthauer, the North Carolina-based chain's appliances merchandising vice president, said in an email. Since most customers start shopping for major appliances online, Lowe's also has made it easier to learn about products online, with product videos, 360-degree views and better search capabilities, he said.

It's not just big-box chains that are fighting for a bigger share of the appliance market. In 2016, J.C. Penney brought major appliances back into stores after a three-decade hiatus. Today, nearly 600 of the retailer's approximately 875 stores have appliance showrooms, a move squarely aimed at Sears.

"We share over 400 malls with a struggling retailer that was once dominant in this category, and we have some in-house talent that understands this space really well," J.C. Penney Chairman and CEO Marvin Ellison told investors last year.

The newcomer attracted a relatively tiny share of consumers' major appliance dollars last year. But Penney's 0.9 percent matched Amazon and Costco and outstripped Menard's, Walmart and Target, according to Stevenson TraQline.

"The consumer has a lot of choices," Sears' Schwartz said. "As our competitors do what they do, we just have to make sure we provide our members with the right value offering and differentiate ourselves with better value, experience and products."

That means making it easier to shop online and connect shoppers to delivery and repair services as well as investing in the Kenmore brand, Schwartz said.

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Until recently, most Kenmore products were only available at Sears. Now you can buy Kenmore appliances on Amazon nationwide, though Sears still has a broader selection. Sears is also investing in developing smart Kenmore appliances.

Yolanda Powledge, 46, noticed the extra technology while shopping last month at the Sears in Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale.

"It's supposed to be better and more efficient, but it looks different than what I grew up with," said Powledge, who plans to upgrade all the appliances in the home she's moving to in Crest Hill. She came to Sears because she heard appliances were on sale. But a $2,879 GE refrigerator with a hot water dispenser prompted sticker shock.

With Kenmore products, Sears typically bundles "smart" features with other perks, like faster washing or drying, so that when customers trade up they don't feel like they're only paying for extra tech, Schwartz said. The company wouldn't be investing in high-tech products if customers weren't interested, he said.

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