Any observer of retail armed with a cell phone camera, generally speaking, can enter a store at any time of the day or night and take pictures that are embarrassing to the store's operator.
That's what happened to Sears, and in a very big way, thanks to an article "More Pathetic Pictures from a Dying Sears" that appeared in The Street.com.
A "dying" operation. A "national tragedy." "Pathetic." These are some of the terms that the financial blogosphere is heaping on the ailing Sears Holdings Corp., the company ranked no. 3 in home improvement sales on the HCN Industry Scoreboard, behind the industry giants of Home Depot and Lowe's.
Point of emphasis: Let us be clear. Sears is struggling, and in a very big way. Its most recent quarterly report shows a net loss of $534 million for the quarter ended Nov. 2, and a $1.007 billion loss for the 39 week year-to-date period. If that's not bad enough, both losses are widening when compared to the year-ago periods.
But back to the pictures. Empty shelves, unflattering presentations and chronic boredom in the aisles were documented by analysts and financial columnists. Is it fair to judge (and condemn) a large retailer's execution ability by a handful of photos?
Sears VP of Corporate Communications Chris Brathwaite offered the following defense of his company in a Twitter post: "We operate nearly 2000 stores. Select photos are not representative of the whole. We post pictures 2." (In a separate tweet explaining his defense, Brathwaite wrote: "We can't let the shorts and others with an agenda simply take uncontested shots at us.")
Brathwaite has a point. The camera doesn't lie -- but one store can produce several different stories depending on where the lens is aimed.
The more important question for readers of HCN is what's happening in Sears stores as it relates to home improvement, tools and lawn and garden? WIth no agenda, other than to be of service to our readers, HCN took a cell phone camera to a New Jersey store.
The Good: Strong signage, inviting aisles and interesting end caps were on display in the tools department.
More good: blowers on display, with some thought for appearances, on a cold winter day.
The interesting: A Pink-alicious end cap grabs attention with "The Original Pink Box" merchandise.
The bad: an empty end cap speaks for itself.
The uninspiring: a bare-bones clearance rack.
The ugly? Duck Dynasty slippers on sale, leftovers from the holidays. At least credit Sears for understanding that the Duck Dynasty is arguably the hottest franchise in the impulse-sales arena.
The strong: This wet/dry vac end cap promotes the chain's strongest brand asset -- Craftsman. And it does so in a clean, powerful way with a strong message of "innovation."
Photography alone can't tell the full story of retailer's environment. But it doesn't hurt. And the pictures above add to the continuing saga of Sears -- telling the story of a retailer on the ropes, but still fighting.