The Incredible Shrinking Sears Holdings

Eddie Lampert says more store closings are in the retailer's future.

May 13, 2014 at 9:30AM


With more than 300 stores closed since 2010, Sears Holdings(NASDAQ:SHLD) CEO Eddie Lampert told investors last week, "Closing stores is going to be part of our future." While it's agreed the once-venerable retailer doesn't need thousands of stores to be relevant to consumers, it still needs to figure out how any of its stores can become relevant to them.

Sears operates around 1,150 Kmart stores and over 830 Sears stores, but the latter division accounted for 56% of its revenues last year, and also the lion's share of its operating losses. If not for Sears Canada, however, the whole operation would be a lot worse off, as it was able to offset Kmart's contribution to the earnings slide.

So, the company needs to figure out exactly how to make whatever level of stores it chooses to retain a destination for whatever number of customers continue to shop there. For Lampert, that's meant remaking Sears into an omnichannel marketplace, where merchandise from both Sears and third-party providers is featured. And a large part of that has been to fashion a loyalty program that will keep its customers returning.

The Shop Your Way program has become a key component of the turnaround strategy, with sales from it now accounting for 69% of total sales from Kmart and Sears full-line stores, up from 59% the year before. In the fourth quarter, it accounted for nearly three-quarters of all sales. Along with online and multichannel sales growing 10% year over year, these results make it clear Lampert is looking to make the business a smaller one, but with more opportunities for consumers to shop where and how they want.

Shop Your Way allows members to accumulate points for purchases made and then redeem them for merchandise, either from Sears itself or authorized third parties, sort of like airlines' frequent flyer programs. The more you spend at Sears, the more you earn.

Unfortunately, it's also killing the company at the same time. Gross margins have come under assault from the Shop Your Way program. Even as its revenues are plunging because it's reducing its footprint -- they fell by $3.7 billion in 2013, largely because of all the store closings -- margins contracted by 170 basis points at Kmart, and 260 basis points at Sears because of the promotional environment created by the loyalty program (though the Sears domestic division was also affected by the spinoff of Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores).

Sears Holdings has had 28 consecutive quarters -- seven straight years! -- of declining sales due to a mix of store closings, asset sales, and spinoffs. Comparable sales, or sales at stores open for more than a year, have had a similarly poor showing, indicating it's not just the footprint reduction that's impacting results. And even as the loyalty program grows in importance to the retailer, it hasn't stemmed the hemorrhaging of customers, as comps fell 3.8% last year, actually worse than the decline experienced the year before.

Making Sears Holdings a smaller company is the right thing to do, but there doesn't appear to be a cohesive plan in place to turn the tide. The retailer has shown a willingness to try anything to halt the losses -- except the one thing everyone says it needs to do: remodel its stores. Lampert maintains customers don't want "decor and fixtures," yet as the company fades away, it may find that an overhaul of the shopping experience could actually make a difference.

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Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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