Where America Shops Meets Where America Shoplifts

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2004-11-19

Where America Shops Meets Where America Shoplifts

Theres no shortage of legitimate reasons why the Sears-Kmart merger will not cause anyone in Bentonville, Ark., to lose much sleep.

But most of the arguments boil down to two points. One: Historically, big mergers rarely succeed. Two: Adding weak plus weak doesnt equal strong. (A third point is that Wall Street loved the move, sending both stocks soaring. If thats not the ultimate kiss of death …)

The IT integration struggle these two firms are going to shortly tackle is a good metaphor for the bigger picture.

What kind of reputation do these two firms have for IT sophistication? Not good.

One industry consultant who has recently worked for both Kmart and Sears was also not optimistic.

"Theyre both technology train wrecks," said the consultant, who wisely asked that we not use his name. Kmart, he said, has continued to "allow technology to dictate how it would run, and thats the opposite of what you need to do. Theyve failed miserably."

When asked about Kmarts position that it has turned a corner and improved IT operations, the consultant was not impressed. "Companies like that dont change that quickly. Kmart doesnt know how to use technology to be innovative," he said.

Like others, he felt slightly more favorably inclined to Sears, but had sharp criticism for a lack of internal integration. "They use completely separate systems. There is no coherent merchandising philosophy that I can see. Different groups do their own thing."

Some IT operations are just terrible. Orders are routinely lost, security is non-existent, systems routinely crash, database results are flawed, and equipment is out-of-date and useless. By most accounts, neither retailer had IT operations that fit into the "terrible" category, although—until recently—Kmarts operations came quite close.

Other IT operations are leading-edge and fine-tuned to perfection. In the retail world, Wal-Mart and BestBuy are good examples of companies that pay attention to their IT operations and let it show.

To read more about the Sears and Kmart merger details, click here.

Then you have the most popular category: the adequates. Nothing about these players is leading-edge, and their C-levels and board members—and Wall Street—rarely sing ITs praises. But sales are recorded, backups happen, virus definitions are kept current, and the lackluster database analytical packages generally function, albeit at an unexciting level. This crowded category is where you find todays IT operations at Sears and Kmart.

Theres nothing wrong with being in the adequate/mediocre category, unless you happen to be in an extremely competitive space and your chief rival happens to be in the "leading-edge" category. In that case, you fall back on the earlier issue: Can adding weak plus weak equal strong?

There are certainly examples where it can indeed equal strong, such as when the weaknesses and strengths of each player complement the other. A global manufacturer that is weak in Europe and Asia but strong in North America may have a difficult time competing worldwide, and a global manufacturer that is weak in North America but strong in Europe and Asia may have similar planetary challenges. But if they merged, their problems could cancel each other out.

The industry is waiting to hear that jigsaw puzzle fit argument. The combined firm will be much larger, giving it the ability to pressure suppliers on price, but thats not much of a competitive advantage when your rival has the same weapon but its a lot bigger.

Among those Wal-Mart weapons: A one-half petabyte database, which is the retail worlds largest. To read more about that huge database, click here.

The announcement thus far hasnt been winning much support among Sears and Kmarts retail colleagues. On Thursday, the results of a survey from RetailWire—a popular retail news analysis and discussion forum organization—was not encouraging.

One-third of those surveyed agreed with the statement: "The deals a stinker, bad plus worse equals the worst." A slightly larger percentage (35 percent) selected "The only thing Im certain of is more stores will be sold," and an additional 11 percent said, "Nothing is really going to change." Five percent said "not sure" and a mere 11 percent agreed that the combined Sears-Kmart team will be "a retailer to be reckoned with."

The head of the union representing many employees of the two companies did not seem to feel empowered by the merger. "A predatory business model that sends wages spiraling across several industries, exploits workers by failing to provide decent pay and destroys responsible competition should be eliminated, not emulated," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. "Corporate bottom-feeding may lure consumers with low prices, but its far from a bargain for the American economy."

He could have at least said "congratulations" first.

The respected analyst firm called The Yankee Group also issued a report on Thursday that was less than optimistic.

The combined company "must align the capabilities and goals of merchandising, the supply chain and IT. Neither retailer has proven capable of doing it. Those failures dont bode well for the future. The litmus test for effective alignment has to be Wal-Mart," wrote Yankee Group analyst John Fontanella.

Next Page: Whats inside the Kmart, Sears IT shops.

Inside Kmart, Sears IT

To be fair, some of the criticisms of Kmarts IT operations are for some programs that have been fixed. Still, we cant ignore history.

"Kmarts systems, up until a very short time ago, were extremely archaic," said Debby Garbato, who serves as editor in chief of a monthly retail magazine called Retail Merchandiser. "For example, they had apparel on a separate replenishment system than other products, and their in-stocks were way down, all because they were really behind the times."

To read about how another major clothing retailer learned to deal with inventory and other challenges, click here.

Kmart was given some credit for being one of the first to support self-checkout, but the company recently started backing away and shutting down self-checkout, at least in certain key locations, said Neil McCarthy, the CIO for the 550-store WaWa convenience store retail chain.

"I know that Kmarts IT has struggled. They were trying the self-service thing, and they yanked all that," McCarthy said. "Sears is a little more on the ball."

Thats probably the perfect way to put it: "a little more on the ball" than Kmart. Thats the kind of honest compliment people used to receive on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.

Sears IT operational history is certainly less depressing than Kmarts, but its hardly exciting. It has periodically toyed with some cutting-edge efforts, particularly in the Web arena, such as allowing customers to try to schedule service visits. Thats tame by todays standards, but it was impressive a few years ago.

The only truly cutting-edge retail player in the Sears camp is recent acquisitionee Lands End, which pioneered the virtual fitting room back in 99.

Sears has never fared well with its clothing offerings, but Lands End brought it the technology to make it feasible. Beyond the e-commerce efforts, Sears integrated the Lands End apparel fulfilling technology, which is no easy feat.

"Apparel is a stock nightmare. You have a million sizes and a million colors. Youre talking SKU management that is unbelievable. And in three months, all of the styles will change," Retail Merchandisers Garbato said.

Sears, on the other hand, was used to stocking things like hammers and automobile gear. "Take car parts. That parts going to be there unchanged for years."

So these Lands End folk are now part of the Sears IT team, at least until the layoff fairies pay them a visit.

Web integration can be perplexing, even for technology leader BestBuy. To learn how it aced technology but flunked communication, click here.

Even if we assume that the best and brightest wont be laid off, Sears and Kmart are likely to lose many of them during the weeks and months of transition, as everyone knows that there will be massive layoffs but nobody knows where. It doesnt take a fortune teller to predict that some top talent is going to run off to find more stable surroundings. Perhaps those open arms will belong to Target or Wal-Mart.

Yankees Fontanella urges observers not to play down the importance of the IT component. "On the scale that [the combined companies] will operate, technology is essential. The [combined] company must become more technically adventurous as it drives for differentiation," he said.

"Unlike the direction that Kmart took four years ago—which almost resulted in the destruction of the company—technology must be viewed as the enabler for business success, not the cause," Fontanella said. "Store format, operating procedures and target demographics differ widely within the new entity, which makes swift and decisive action to align goals and capabilities all the more critical."

Thats true. Both of these retailers do have significant differences. The target audiences alone tempt the cynical suggestion that this is a case of Where American Shops meeting Where America Shoplifts.

But they also have much in common. They are major retailers with world-class brands that have been beaten up to second-tier players. Its not the synergies one ideally wants, but its a start.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on technologys impact on retail.

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