Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Secret Sears Store Closings

Yes, the Sears store in Exton is closing. I went to the store and took a picture.

The posters in the windows read “Store closing sale! Nothing held back!” At half a meter square, these are a far cry from the signs and banners you expect, but the wording could not be more clear. If the message is muted from the parking lot, it is more obvious after you step inside the store. The sale message is repeated on larger laser-printed paper banners hanging overhead.

But if you don’t go into the store, you might never know that the store is closing.

The store finder on the Sears web site does not mention that the store is closing. I have not seen a closing date. As I understand it, legally the date would have to be within six months, but that doesn’t narrow it down much. I don’t think there have been any print advertisements or news stories about this store. The Internet banner ads appear to be narrowly targeted — no one else seems to have seen them.

When I saw the ads myself I initially thought they were either fake or a mistakenly approved ad campaign. This is the era of Internet misinformation, after all, and it would cost a rogue actor only a few dollars to run display ads that reach only bloggers who have mentioned Sears and its recent bankruptcy, in order to plant a false idea and create a rumor. An online ad campaign might be prepared for the future and then launched by mistake with hardly anyone knowing about it even within the company. It seemed strange that there I could not find mentions of the store closing on the Sears web site, in a news outlet, or anywhere. There were news stories about other locations closing, but not the one in Exton. I went to the store and verified that the store closing sale is real.

So some Sears stores are having a “secret” store closing sale. That is a concept I have never run across before. Traditionally the whole point of a sale is to draw attention and bring shoppers into the store. Sears is taking the opposite approach. It is closing stores and and hoping the world does not notice.

Sears is surely planning on having millions of dollars in unsold merchandise, as I saw in the nearest Kmart store when it closed a year ago. The merchandise can be shipped out to another store in an adjoining county. There isn’t the same pressure to sell everything when a retail chain is closing only a dozen or so isolated stores.

The real story here, though, I believe, is embarrassment. The recent Sears bankruptcy was supposed to cut losses and put the retailer back on an even keel. Instead it is already back into its downward spiral. For context, the Exton store, though surely too large for the Sears of today, is one of the chain’s best stores and its only remaining store in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. If it can’t keep going here then there is not much hope for Sears stores anywhere. But Sears needs to give a good appearance for investors and lenders if it is to keep operating even one more year.

Perhaps Sears has reached the point where giving the impression of holding its own is more important than actually making a profit. That would explain why it could decide that getting shoppers to buy the merchandise in the stores that are closing is not so important as its public image, so that a store closing is something the retailer would rather not talk about.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Bayer Fades After Monsanto Acquisition

Could Bayer face bankruptcy because of its acquisition of Monsanto? There is reason to consider that as a possibility. The stock has suffered this year, so that the entire company is now worth less than the $60 billion it paid for Monsanto last year. The most obvious risks relate to corrupt practices in Europe and illnesses caused by the herbicide Roundup in the United States, but problems run much deeper than that.

It was a $2 billion verdict in favor of two people who got cancer after exposure to Roundup that made the biggest headlines, but there are thousands of lawsuits on behalf of people sickened or killed by Roundup. Facing a likely liability of millions of dollars per case, the lawsuits already in the courts might be enough to bankrupt the company. And virtually every person and animal in the world has some degree of Roundup exposure, so the civil liability could be thousands of times larger, and one has to wonder how long it will be legal to sell Roundup over-the-counter. The desperation in Bayer’s position is easily seen in its public statements, in which it says its plan is that all of the Roundup cases will be overturned on appeal, an outcome that legal observers say is unlikely.

In Europe, the company collected files on p.r. targets with detailed information that appear to go beyond what European law allows. An investigation is underway in multiple countries. That is, it looks like the company was preparing to bribe and blackmail journalists, scientists, and others and may indeed have done so already. Though Bayer so far has been able to distance itself from what it says was a Monsanto initiative, Bayer’s own history is dodgy enough and there is no telling what an investigation might turn up.

Roundup and blackmail are not two isolated problems at Bayer. Roundup is certainly not the only toxic product Bayer sells. Toxicity is inherent in the fields it works in. So too, apparently, is deceptive marketing. The agribusiness sector that Bayer tries to dominate uses, to cite just one example, pictures of cows in fields to sell milk from cows kept in concrete cells. When examined, this will likely be found to be illegal in countries like the U.K. that have truth in marketing laws.

Even in the absence of scandal, Bayer may have accumulated so much market clout that it works against the company's fortunes. Bayer depends on national laws to protect its exclusive rights to product categories at the same time that it wields its clout against those countries’ national economies. Countries are likely to respond defensively with technical legal changes to reduce the risks. Technical changes in the legal status of seeds would be too obscure to explain to the broader public but could pull the rug out from under Bayer’s dominant market position in one country after another.

No one disputes that Bayer blundered badly in its acquisition of Monsanto. Is it too late for the company to recover? Maybe not, but I don't think anyone can say with confidence.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

When Cars Are Mostly Electric

What will it look like when most of the cars are electric? That’s a threshold that seemed unimaginable to most of the auto industry — until it happened.

It happened last month in Norway. Car buyers bought more electric vehicles than fuel-burning vehicles. From NPR:

The 58 percent share for electric vehicles in March was a bit of a fluke, with a flurry of car sales after a period of limited supply that kept buyers waiting. Don’t expect electric cars to take a 50 percent share again in April or May — but it will happen again, and within a year or two, it will be the norm. Electric vehicles had a 30 percent share in 2018, and that number will grow in 2019.

That’s a far higher level of adoption than in the United States, where electric cars are likely to reach a 5 percent share for the first time in 2018. The U.S. market is almost 100 times the size of Norway’s, so that means more electric cars are sold to U.S. drivers. Still, the experience in Norway is important in making the idea of having mostly electric cars look attainable and familiar.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Replacing with the Same Model

I think it has become a trend: consumers replacing broken appliances and computing devices with the same model they had.

This is hardly the behavior that manufacturers and retailers expect. They expect shoppers to be looking for the latest, most advanced designs. But this isn’t always what shoppers want. The same way that you might postpone the purchase of a replacement for a device until the device actually fails, you might choose to replace the device with the design that you are already used to.

The purpose is to minimize the disruption. You don’t have to learn something new when you replace a device with another one that is exactly the same. There are no new processes to learn, no working habits to change.

There can be emotional reasons to keep things the same. In a world of constant change there is some relief when even one small change can be postponed. On two occasions I remember making a dumb mistake that destroyed a kitchen device. I bought a replacement that was not just the same model but the same color so that I could pretend that the error and damage had never happened.

It is the resistance to learning that seems to be the deciding factor, though. Since last year, iPhone sales have been sluggish because potential buyers were put off by the large number of new features. When combined with an ultra-high price and a high degree of uncertainty about the usefulness of the new features, people decided to hold on to their old phones for a few more years.

The same effect can be seen with devices as prosaic as coffee makers. I just today sold a coffee maker online, and I got a higher price than I would have guessed, comparable to the prices shoppers paid for them when first released five years ago. It surely helped that I am not a coffee drinker and had never used the machine I was selling. The most likely reason for the purchase is that the buyer wanted to replace a broken machine with a new one that was just like it.

I can relate to that kind of thinking when I look at my desktop computer, a Mac Pro made around 2010. That makes it nine years old as I write this. A more efficient Mac Pro was introduced just three years later, but the difficulty in configuring it, along with a new higher price, dissuaded me and most of the computing world from buying it. Instead, millions of computer users are waiting for the new-generation Mac Pro to be introduced next, probably this year.

When the 2013 Mac Pro came out, I was working on one of the original 2006 Mac Pro designs. Those became obsolete around 2015, and I have upgraded by buying old machines on the used market. It was an easy adjustment for me to make. I could literally slide the hard disk drive out of the old Mac Pro and into the new one, then carry on almost as if I were working on the same computer as before.

This approach has its limits. Eventually, Apple’s macOS will no longer support the 2010 Mac Pro I currently use, and it has the other problems you would expect in a nine-year-old computer. Last week I had to replace the optical drive after it failed. One of the chips, a memory chip I think, has become unreliable when the computer is cold, and I am working around that problem by never turning the computer off or allowing it to sleep. That is hardly an efficient strategy, but the energy costs are lower than those of buying another computer, even another 9-year-old computer on the used market.

Similar problems arise with the old coffee makers. A coffee maker is not so sturdy that it is likely to keep running for another five years, but if it does, it will eventually become hard to find the supplies for it. But even a few years of postponing an inevitable change may be worth it if it allows the user to skip an entire generation of technology, so that a whole set of skills never has to be learned.

Manufacturers gain more sales by introducing new models and new features every year than they lose by turning away potential buyers who would rather have the same thing as before, so the regularly scheduled design upgrades are not about to go away. Buyers who want to replace a broken device with something identical will mostly have to navigate the used market. In the bigger picture, this is a good thing. Fewer raw materials are needed for factories and old equipment is delayed in getting to the landfill.

In some cases there are market opportunities to provide devices that mimic popular designs that are no longer available. The most popular iPhone form factor ever was that of the iPhone 5, 5c, and SE. Now that the iPhone SE has been discontinued, there is an opportunity for a manufacturer to provide a product that resembles the discontinued phone as closely as possible. Consumers might choose that product if they believe they can avoid the learning curve that goes with finding their way around a new design.

Or maybe not. Maybe phone users who break their iPhone SEs will buy used iPhone SEs as replacements. Maybe Apple will fill this niche itself with a new model that copies much of the look and feel of the iPhone SE.

Products are more diverse and complicated than ever, and the complexity is a burden on consumers. It is no surprise if they are responding by looking for ways to reduce the complexity.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Lumber Liquidators Settles Over False Statements to Investors

At the height of its formaldehyde scandal, Lumber Liquidators issued a blistering public denial. It said that its flooring materials passed tests. It said workers at the factory where the flooring was made had nothing to do with its manufacturing. It said it had stopped purchasing flooring from the factory at issue. The denial sounded unlikely at the time, and we now know none of it was true. Virtually the entire statement contradicted what company officials had known all along. The lies were intended to mislead investors, the SEC ruled, and the company has now agreed to pay a $33 million fine.

The fine is nearly the same amount the company paid in settlements with consumers who faced a risk of various illnesses including cancer from the chemical exposure. The proportions reflect the priorities of U.S. law, under which misleading investors is every bit as serious as intentionally harming public health.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Playing Catch-Up at Kraft Heinz

Analysts today are comparing Kraft Heinz to Anheuser-Busch InBev. In both cases, conglomerates of high-chemical consumer brands are trying to compete by cost-cutting.

I don’t drink beer so I can’t vouch for the aptness of the comparison. I have seen my beer-drinking friends switch almost entirely from factory-made beer to local craft beer over the last twenty years, and it is a transition that has happened without much discussion. From the outside, it looks as though factory beer got so icky that drinkers went looking for any available alternative.

The story with Kraft Heinz’s packaged food brands in categories such as sausage, pickles, ketchup, and cheese sauce is similar. The general strategy of the conglomerate is to homogenize a product as much as possible, add as many low-cost chemicals as they can get away with, and present it in a package that can be kept on the shelf for years. It is not the way most consumers these days would ask you to manufacture a packaged food.

The Kraft Heinz brand that is losing ground the fastest is Oscar Mayer, and I can easily imagine why. I remember in my childhood getting the chance to try out this brand, and no one could explain to me how it could be a food that people would select voluntarily. Kraft and Heinz, though, were two of my go-to brands for many years, and then I raised my sights at the same time that the factories were lowering the quality of their recipes. Heinz has fallen to about sixth place on my list of preferred ketchup brands, but I see Kraft as a brand of last resort, a product I probably haven’t purchased in ten years, though I would still eat it if I had nothing else to choose from. In both categories, ketchup and macaroni and cheese, my own personal consumption fell by more than half perhaps five years ago as I opted for more fresh and nutrient-dense foods. Even if the Kraft Heinz brands could somehow hold their market positions, they are selling into a declining space.

Other food shoppers are making this same journey now, it seems, looking for better food choices and trying new brands. Kraft Heinz is trying to adapt, but slowly, without doing anything sudden. It must now contend with several newer brands that have more credibility in niches like ketchup and macaroni and cheese. It is trying to catch up, yet is unwilling to change as quickly as its competitors can.

The news from Kraft Heinz today is complicated, to say the least. There are multiple accounting controversies and investigations, all seemingly unrelated to each other and to the company’s core problems. An eye-catching $15 billion write-down that surely looks scandalous to the casual observer and must have been the main thing prompting a 27 percent decline in the stock today doesn’t seem to connect to the larger trend, in which more supermarket shoppers are trying to stay away from the traditional high-chemical approach that has dominated packaged food since the 1980s.

In a way, Kraft Heinz is another HP-Compaq story — major brands combining just so they can decline together. In a few more years, Kraft Heinz’s total sales could be about the same as either of its two predecessors, only to go down from there, the same thing that happened to HP and Compaq.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A Closed Kmart Store

Kmart still exists, but most of the stores have closed. Here is a photo of the last Kmart store in my local area, now closed, but with the lights still on. Millions of dollars in unsold inventory has to be shipped out to other stores.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Amazon Cancels NYC Plans

New York City community leaders worried about the likely impact of a major Amazon office center there are breathing a sigh of relief after Amazon announced it has canceled its plans.

Last week there were reports that Amazon was trying to negotiate further concessions on top of the $3 billion in subsidies that state and city officials had already agreed to. Today, though, Amazon released an alarmingly bitter statement blaming the cancellation on opposition from city officials. In its statement, Amazon falsely claimed its project had the support of 70 percent of city residents. In fact, the plan faced an immediate backlash from the public after the scale of the promised subsidies was revealed, with further concerns when it was learned that the new facility would probably not create any net job growth. The prospects for the project were dimmed further when Amazon made additional demands in closed-door meetings with officials.

Amazon’s change of heart was surely more influenced by a disappointing December across the retail sector than by local opposition. With future revenue in doubt, Amazon is scaling back its plans. The surest indication of this is that Amazon says it has no plans to replace the proposed New York City facility with similar one elsewhere. Even without the New York City facility, Amazon probably will never see the kind of growth that would justify its rapid office expansion, and it could go into a decline at any point without warning. That becomes much more likely if there is an recession in the United States, a prospect that seems closer today after the government released data that shows a decline at retail in December.

The timing of Amazon’s decline is hard to predict, but a decline at some point is inevitable, and New York City will be spared the impact of that decline, now that an Amazon office complex will not be going forward there.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Hasbro Confirms Toy Overhang

The Hasbro earnings report confirms the effect of the overhang of inventory from the Toys ‘R’ Us liquidation during the holiday shopping season. Sarah Whitten covering the story at CNBC:

I feel confident that the toy inventory overhang is still in stores and warehouses now after muted toy sales across the retail sector in 2018. It may take the 2019 holiday shopping season to get toy inventories back to a steady-state level.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

One More Year for a Smaller Sears

Sears will exit bankruptcy, but in a state at least as precarious a year ago.

A bankruptcy court today approved the sale of Sears to its CEO’s hedge fund in the hope that this arrangement would temporarily save the jobs of the retailer’s employees. The new Sears and Kmart will have 425 stores, though observers expect store closures to continue at a rate of roughly 4 per month. The same as a year ago, the company faces a cash crunch and a load of liabilities that it cannot reasonably expect to ever pay. It is a company operating at a loss. The losses between now and the end of 2019 are likely to be in the neighborhood of $1 billion, a sum that would use up cash on hand and available credit. Even though it is exiting bankruptcy, it still looks like Sears and Kmart are probably heading for liquidation within a year when cash runs out.

The new Sears and Kmart will face new challenges that result from the current bankruptcy. Employees now know for sure that their pensions will not be funded. They have little incentive to stay with a doomed company if they can find an equivalent job anywhere else. As always, it is the most skilled employees who will leave most easily. Suppliers that were not paid when Sears went into bankruptcy will be in no position to extend credit to a company that remains desperately short of cash, so Sears and Kmart stores will have even less to sell in 2019 than they had in 2018. Shoppers will have little reason to return to the stores knowing that the company is on its last legs and the merchandise they are looking for in the store is not likely to be found. The world continues to turn away from department stores in general. It is a retail category that has been in decline since the late 1980s even as retail in general has boomed. Sears and Kmart have done worse than the category they are in, and now they need to do better than average just to survive.

Just to make it through 2019, Sears needs big changes. The company knows its stores are too large, and it will continue to shrink some stores in place and move others to smaller locations. At the same time, it desperately needs new investors to keep operating and pay for the costs of these changes. That will be hard to arrange; investors usually like to bet on a growing company rather than one that must shrink to survive.

Sears needs a business plan that will allow it to make a profit. It needs to reclaim its identity and present a reason for shoppers to go into the stores. As a first step, Sears and Kmart need to cut back on their clothing offerings. Sears could even abandon clothing entirely. Sears was never a fashion name, and for Kmart, that is a history from so long ago that most shoppers have forgotten.

To accomplish any of this, Sears and Kmart need new management. A management team that could not manage a single change to the business plan in five months of bankruptcy can hardly be expected to turn the two retail chains’ business models upside down in the ten months that remain before cash runs out.

Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that both retail chains go into bankruptcy again in 8 to 13 months, as analysts expect. The current bankruptcy can be seen as a restructuring of liabilities mainly for the purposes of the second bankruptcy. The biggest losers this time around are employees, suppliers, lenders, landlords, and stockholders. A year from now, it may be the same story again.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Windows Mobile End of Life

In a support document dated January 2, 2019, Microsoft has announced end of life for the last few products that use the Windows Mobile operating system. Most Windows Mobile devices are already considered obsolete. Support for Windows Mobile ends in June for two more device models and in December for the rest.

Nominally, the announcement says that the last two operating system versions will be updated for a few more months, depending on the version. In practice, it is fair to expect that the operating system will not be updated for new security risks unless the potential attack vector is particularly broad and the fix is particularly simple. This announcement marks the definitive end of life for Windows Phone, so any software developer who was thinking of updating an application will be giving up that idea now. Users will continue to use the phones at their own risk for a few more years.

Windows Mobile was a key part of the design philosophy for Windows 10, the current version of the Microsoft Windows operating system. The operating system could continue to be used on desktop computers for ten more years or longer, but eventually, that platform too will be abandoned.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Vision Boards and Department Stores

What happened to the law of attraction? It was an important topic for many years around the release of The Secret, but when I searched Google News today, there were no recent stories on law of attraction. If you go by what you see in the news, law of attraction is over.

There is trouble too in the department store sector. The news from the recent holiday shopping season is so dire that Sears and Kmart are preparing to close forever in the first half of this year, and other department store chains are scaling back their plans.

The way I see it, the decline in law of attraction and the decline in department stores are related. Something has changed in the way people relate to aspirations that make both ideas less important than they were a decade ago.

Yes, I realize I have connected two things that seem to have to nothing to do with each other, but when you look more closely, it makes perfect sense. Allow me to connect the dots.

Law of Attraction

First, what is law of attraction, and why has it fallen away in recent years? As presented in the book and DVD The Secret and a thousand other works from the same period, law of attraction is a spiritual law and an associated technique that allow you to convert your wishes into reality — to manifest the things you want the most — by correctly focusing your thoughts and emotions.

I believe most viewers and readers understood law of attraction in a shorthand form. The simplified “LoA” told them to maintain a positive mood and act as if there were no obstacles to the specific outcomes they had selected for themselves.

As a technique, that sounds too simple to be true — and it is. People who tried it took action that was not grounded in any kind of strategy or logic, with costly results. I believe I am living where I am now because a real estate investor decided he could simply double the rent for all of his tenants. Instead of bringing in more money, the house I had been living in went vacant for a long time after he evicted me. Almost anyone from that period can tell similar stories of large-scale endeavors that began in mindless optimism and ended badly.

One of those ill-fated endeavors was the merger of Sears and Kmart. At the time, Sears was declining and Kmart had gone bankrupt. I remember it was obvious to friends who knew almost nothing about retail that this arrangement made no sense. “How does combining two weak retail chains result in a strong company?” was the question. We all assumed that there was some kind of secret plan to remedy some of the flaws in the two retail giants. As it turned out, there never was a plan, only an attitude of optimism, and after years of losses, the combined company went into bankruptcy a few months ago. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Vision Boards

Law of attraction works only if you can control your focus, and one of the most successful and widely used techniques for doing that was the vision board. A vision board is a simple cut-and-paste collage that represents the things you want. You can put it on the wall and look at it every day while basking in the glow of your imagined future acquisitions and achievements. Most people, when directed to create a vision board, would simply paste up photos cut out of catalogs and magazines. You might find photos of furniture you resonate with, fancier clothes than you have ever worn, vacation destinations, and other feel-good items.

In one sense, vision boards work, but in a more profound sense, they usually don’t work at all. Most people who made a vision board approached it as if they were selecting items from a catalog. In more than a few cases, they literally were just picking things out of a single catalog and pasting them up on the board. The result, obviously, was just a more cluttered rendering of the catalog that the pictures came from. So, yes, this kind of vision board “worked” if used correctly, but all you could expect it to do was generate more clutter in its owner’s life. More clutter was not what people really wanted. In most cases, it did nothing to make them more happy.

The vision board is only one of many LoA focusing techniques, but all share the same drawback. The problem is not a result of the focusing technique. Rather, the problem arises out of the idea of thinking of the world around you as if it were a catalog. Thinking this way, you tend to get only the things that commercial interests are selling, rather than the things you really want. The things you want the most will surely include things that currently do not exist in your life, even though, with some effort and good fortune, they could. You cannot arrive at the things you want most by limiting yourself to what already exists, yet this is what every LoA technique I have run across asks you to do.

True Desires

There is a more fundamental problem. You have to know yourself in a profound sense before you can know what you really want. You have to know yourself well enough to be able to separate your true desires from the thoughts that were planted in you from outside, usually by commercial interests through television, advertising, and other media, or by childhood programming from your family and the surrounding culture. What good is it to manifest a product from an informercial only to discover that it isn’t what you thought it would be? That is not the kind of manifesting that makes a person happy.

What do you really want? Who are you, really? These are more difficult questions than they might seem at first, and I won’t outline the steps to properly answer them here. It is enough to note how you tend to learn the difficulties involved in these questions. You experience a series of disappointments after attaining things you thought you wanted. Some of the things are useless. Perhaps they are material objects and they mean so little, after you find out what they truly are, that you end up throwing them away. The accomplishments or experiences you might struggle for tend to look smaller after you reach them. The top of the mountain is just another place to stand. That college diploma means you now have to find a new place to live. I only barely remember my first blog post that had 1,000 views. As astonishing as that achievement was in the moment, it didn’t improve my life in any sense I could point to. I still had to go cook supper and wash my hair.

As you learn from these experiences, they can only make you more skeptical of the things you think you want. “Why do I want this thing?” you ask. In some cases you can study the psychology behind the desire and realize, “Oh — I want it because the facial expressions of the models in the advertisement made me imagine that they were on to something.” You realize you have been manipulated. You see how easily desires have been planted in your mind by the world outside.

The Wish Book and the Department Store

To connect all this to the department store, I have to take a step back. Remember the vision boards I mentioned, and the way a vision board might be made by cutting images from catalogs? The department store is based on the catalog in an even more profound way than the vision board is. Sears, the most successful department store of the 20th century, was a mail-order catalog before it was a department store. Borrowing lingo from the 21st century, the Sears store was meant as a fully interactive, 3-D printed version of the Sears catalog. One of the annual Sears catalogs was actually called the “Wish Book.” The name tells you how the catalog was designed to have the same kind of impact as a vision board — to create an energetic connection to things that you might have in the future. Back when printed catalogs were an important part of retail, people would circle items in pen on the pages of the catalog. It was a way of establishing a connection to an item that you couldn’t buy immediately. Done with the right energy, this had exactly the same effect as the vision board.

The department store tried to provide the same experience in a larger format. As a shopper, you were supposed to walk around and see what was available. Some of the products would have more appeal than others, and the ones that appealed to you the most were the ones you would buy, or at least you would wish for them. For years, Sears had the slogan, “We sell everything.” This was never literally true, but it reflected the ideal that you would see the store and catalog as the universe of available products, and therefore, the perfect place to go to make your selections.

The department store is meant to serve as a three-dimensional vision board. It ultimately can succeed only if it persuades you to see it in those terms.

Aspiration and Desperation

It has been a generation since any department store actually properly represented the aspirations of its shoppers. Even if you are living on the edge of poverty, when you look at the most important things you buy, you ideally want them to be better than the products you see in a department store. A department store is unlikely to carry the best products in any category, but you may find some that are “good enough, and not too expensive.” You would probably struggle to imagine a shopper who walks around a department store imagining the life they might be able to live someday. A Kmart or Macy’s shopper is more likely to be thinking, “I am so thankful I do not have to wear the clothes that they sell here.”

As recently as the 1980s, a department store represented a kind of generic upper middle class lifestyle that, not coincidentally, could also be seen in the television shows of the era. An affluent family would drive to the department in their full-size car to purchase products that reinforced their identity as being better off than most of the people in town.

By 2005, this sense of aspiration had given way to the opposite, a feeling of desperation. By then, the department store had become, more than anything else, the retailer of last resort. You went there when something didn’t have to be good, but you needed it right away or you couldn’t find it anywhere else. The illusion that a department store could sell you anything you needed had long since disappeared. It was disappointing to see how many compromises you had to make to buy a product from a rack in a department store. You would imagine the better product you knew existed somewhere else, but you settled for less for the sake of expediency.

The state of the department store has only declined in the years since. The most successful department store now is Walmart, a store that sells products of the lowest quality of any major retail chain. Walmart persists by persuading its customers that they cannot afford the prices they will pay at any other store. Where other department stores became the retailer of last resort by accident, Walmart intentionally positions itself this way. Knowing that this is its role, it regularly takes actions to undermine the confidence of its shoppers. Mimicking the dynamic of an abusive relationship, this strategy may keep customers from discovering that they have better options elsewhere.

Looking back, I would argue that the decline of the department store paved the way for the law of attraction fad. The Secret helped filled the gap that was created when department stores could no longer serve as focal points of anyone’s aspirations. If walking around JCPenney left you feeling depressed and dejected, you could cheer yourself up by making your own vision board.

The Force of Habit

If department stores have held on for another 20 years, it is mainly because of the force of habit. Shoppers who grew up going to department stores continue to do so, even if it no longer makes economic sense. Yet if law of attraction has faded from the collective consciousness, the same forces will eventually break the department store habit too.

One way to observe this is to look at how little mind share department stores hold among shoppers born after 1985. These are shoppers born too late to see the aspirational side of the department store. To them, a department store is only a retailer of last resort. It is an unhappy chore if you have to go to a department store to buy towels in the middle of the night because of some emergency — perhaps a plumbing failure has soaked the entire bathroom closet. But it is only when that emergency arises that you need to know the name of the store.

Department Store for What?

There is a larger problem with the department store that affects even its more loyal shoppers. There has been a loss of identity. No department store really stands for anything anymore. The only major exception is Sears, which for a lifetime set the standard for heavy-duty products such as appliances, tools, and batteries. But Sears is bankrupt and on its way to closing this year. There are a few luxury department stores that represent a certain sense of elite style. But no other department store really stands for anything in a positive sense.

I asked a few people to state the brand identity of any department store chain, in a sentence of the form, “Macy’s means ________” or “Target means ________.” No one had any suggestions. “I’m drawing a blank,” was the answer I got. It probably isn’t possible for a store that sells so many unrelated things to have a meaningful identity. Yet the clock is ticking, and the department stores that remain must come up with a way to develop a sense of identity strong enough that shoppers will continue to come in. Being the retailer of last resort is not enough — it will not be a profitable niche for a department store any more than it was for Radio Shack in its category.

It is the merchandising that has to change. When you go into a department store, you expect to see a hit-or-miss selection of products that are good enough to get by, but most of the time, no better than that. I think we have reached the point where a store has to specialize in something. Shoppers want to go to a store where they can find a coherent point of view on the product category they are shopping for. It is not in the nature of a department store to provide that, but now I think they must, at least somewhere in the store. Each department store has to choose a couple of categories in which it can stake the claim of being the best. The store must take the time to understand the products it has to offer in these departments. Then it needs a positive connecting theme that will remind the casual shopper what those categories are.

The only example I can think of is Bed Bath & Beyond, a store that tries to help you outfit the more distinctive rooms in your house. Bed Bath & Beyond is not considered a department store, but that is the mindset that every department store has to look at now. The question should be, what do you want your store to be known for when the idea of a department store is taken away? It is the question to ask because, in many shoppers’ minds, that transition has already taken place.

Beyond the Catalog

What is the cultural shift that killed off the law of attraction as a cultural force and is now chipping away at the department store as a concept? I believe it is the fundamental idea behind the catalog that has lost its appeal. There was a time when the mail-order catalog, the department store, or the giant web store represented the ideal of freedom. The thinking was, you could choose whatever you wanted. This assumed you had the money to do so, but there is a more fundamental objection than that. Freedom does not mean choosing from a list that someone else has put together. Freedom does not even mean choosing from among the things that already exist. Freedom, people have come to understand, means being able to choose without those other constraints being added.

It is easy to think of examples to illustrate this philosophical point. If you are in a jail cell, perhaps you have the choice to sit on the east side of the cell or the west side of the cell, but that is not what freedom means. I think of a restaurant where the menu offers your choice of lobster, shrimp, or fish. If you were obliged to eat a meal there, you could hardly say that you could eat whatever you wanted. In the high school I attended, students were obliged to study a foreign language, but there were only three languages to choose from.

The same principle applies if you scale up to the level of a department store. Perhaps you can buy a corkscrew in the store, but there is only one kind available, and it not a product you could compare to the best corkscrew you have ever seen. Someone behind the scenes has decided what products you can see in the store, and they are not making their choices the way you or any shopper would make them. Your choices are constrained not just by the limited scale of the store, but by a hidden agenda that probably runs counter to your interests as a shopper. Even the largest web store has this same problem. Selections are limited and the product names and descriptions may be intended to mislead. Being deceived and getting something you didn’t want is not what freedom is about either.

Law of attraction is not limited to the concept of a catalog, but it was presented to the world in those terms and has run into the same problems. It is all too easy to parody the manifestation culture that surrounded the law of attraction fad, but it reached its ludicrous extreme in a course that challenged students to manifest a new car.

Yes, you could pick any new car you wanted, but it is still a bizarre limitation imposed on top of the open-ended law of attraction. Why a new car? I suspect is it because the instructors knew that most students don’t know what they want. You have to tell the students what they want to get them through the exercise in manifesting. The obvious problem with that is that the students aren’t manifesting what they want. Instead, even assuming they succeed in the course, they are stuck with the new car. It is no wonder if most students gave up on the idea of manifesting after that experience.

Most people don’t really want a new car. If the car works as a mandated goal for a manifesting course, it is only because it is an idea firmly planted in our collective expectations by two lifetimes of advertising and commercial manipulation. But to a lesser degree, it is the same story with most of the things we think we want. Sometimes we think we want something just out of envy. We saw someone who got a new bike or won a race, and they looked happy. We wanted to be happy too, and we didn’t necessarily stop to ask whether we would have the same emotional reaction to the product or achievement. Sometimes we were tricked into thinking we saw a product have this effect on someone. Advertising images make us think we saw this happen, even if we never did.

When we get the things we think we want or things we were tricked into wanting, it doesn’t make us happy. There is the momentary glow of achievement, but that lasts for an hour, or maybe a day for something we were persuaded was really big. After that feeling fades, we’re left to try to figure out what we just got. Repeat this scene enough times, and eventually anyone is going to start to feel somewhat skeptical or jaded.

Waking Up From the Trance

More than a few of us are waking up to the extent of the manipulations that have been applied to us. We are waking up from a commercial trance or from some other kind of trance. If this happens suddenly, as it often does, it can bring on an existential crisis. We could say, “I have to find out who I really am and what I really want, or I will continue to be manipulated in the same way.”

Even those of us who do not reach this point have to become more skeptical as a result of the disappointments that so often follow our purchases and achievements. “How can I win at this game?” we might ask, and if the answers are not obvious, then it casts doubt on manifesting and shopping alike. The only products we are sure we really want are the ideas we saw ourselves form from our own view of the world — but then, often, we find that no one makes the products we have imagined.

The purpose of the department store is already hard to explain, and the selection of products inside is already depressingly small compared to what everyone knows is available in the world. If shoppers are waking up from the trance and looking for the freedom to choose what they want, department stores may die a natural death. We will still need a retailer of last resort but it is not clear that this will resemble a department store.

It is ironic that law of attraction and manifesting have disappeared from the cultural conversation just as we are on the verge of making good use of them, by which I mean using them to create things that do not already exist. Perhaps our decade of experience with law of attraction was just an exercise, with the real work ahead to appear in a form that we are not quite ready to imagine.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Department Stores See Slow December

The later weeks of the holiday shopping season were not so cheerful for U.S. department stores. We already knew that Sears and Kmart, in bankruptcy, had fared so poorly in December that the company is preparing to liquidate, though the details still depend on an auction next week. But this is not just a Sears problem. This week, more gloomy reports have come in. There is reason for concern for Macy’s, which has had big plans and high hopes, then fallen short two Decembers in a row. JCPenney last year had its first good holiday shopping season in years, only to return to its downward drift this time around. It has announced three store closings. Kohl’s also reported a disappointing December. Target, by contrast, showed strong holiday-season growth after years of struggle.

JCPenney is likely to gain the most from the expecting closing of Sears, and it is probably Target that gains the largest number of Kmart shoppers. If 500 department stores close it provides breathing room for the department stores that remain, but does little to solve the problems of identity and merchandising that plague the whole department store sector. It is harder than ever for a store that sells so many things to have the kind of meaningful identity that will bring shoppers in, and this is a problem that has no obvious solution. There is little consolation in the thought that the department store that has the strongest brand identity, Sears, is the next one to close its doors.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

How to Decline the Sears Mastercard

With Sears going into liquidation as soon as next week, the Sears credit card will soon be little more than a curiosity. Citibank will try to hold on to as many cardholders as it can by converting the Sears card to a Mastercard. I received the card replacement notice in yesterday’s mail. I imagine most Sears cardholders will receive the same notice shortly, just because the bank will have more success in converting cardholders before their local Sears and Kmart stores close. If you are a Sears cardholder, though, it isn’t likely that you will want it replaced with the Sears Mastercard. That is an upgrade that might benefit a shopper who does not already hold a Mastercard or Discover Card, but that will be only a few thousand people. Otherwise, when you get the upgrade offer, you will need to take action to decline it, or you will be getting an unwanted credit card in the mail. Fortunately, the bank makes that easy to do.

The upgrade notice is a cheery letter with the headline, “Congratulations, you’re being upgraded to the Sears Mastercard.” A single bold sentence in the letter contains all the instructions you need to decline the upgrade, along with a deadline date, but even if you lose the letter, you can still decline the Mastercard by following the instructions:

If you would prefer not to receive this upgrade, you can decline it by calling 1-800-669-8488 or visiting by [deadline 6 weeks out].

As always, make sure the web address redirects to the Citibank secure site. At that web page, I needed only the actual card and a personal ID number to decline the card upgrade. I didn’t need any codes from the upgrade notice.

If you have a Sears card and can’t locate it, call the bank and tell them the card is missing — the same thing you would do with any missing credit card. That is still important to do even if Sears is closing soon.

Source Says Sears Is Preparing to Liquidate

A Reuters source says Sears is preparing a liquidation plan, which it will file with the bankruptcy court today:

Sears had been considering a fragmentary no-cash bid led by its chairman, but reading between the lines, it seems this bid was never complete and the board was not convinced it had the potential to turn into a complete bid that would keep any part of the business intact.

Sears or another party could ask for a further delay, but even if that is granted, I expect the bankruptcy court will want to proceed to a liquidation auction within a couple of weeks, which could mean most stores closing in May. The best hope for a continuation at this point is that a buyer buys several dozen stores and either the Sears or Kmart brand, but while this might sound relatively simple, it rarely happens in large retail chain liquidations.

Update: A mostly consistent account with further details from Lauren Hirsch at CNBC:

A Bloomberg analysis at Chicago Tribune says the bid’s reliance on debt holdings in place of cash might have been the problem:

Update: The bankruptcy court has ordered a one-day delay to allow a revised going-concern bid. Sears’ chairman has said the revised bid will include some cash, potentially enough to get the company through bankruptcy.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Why It Is So Hard to Sell iPhones This Year

Longer upgrade cycles bit Apple and Wall Street today. Apple acknowledged that its newest iPhones are not selling as well as everyone was expecting, though sales are not necessarily slower than sales of past models. Apple’s stock fell by 10 percent today, and the major indexes fell 3 percent.

There are a lot of problems with selling consumer electronics right now, and analysts haven’t done well in sorting out the various effects. The biggest immediate problem is economic anxiety in China, where consumers fear a recession and have cut back broadly on big-ticket purchases. Of course, it is the same story in the U.K., another significant market for Apple.

There are definite problems with the new iPhone designs. The price sticker is certainly an issue. No phone so expensive has ever sold well. But there is another issue. Consumers think most of the new features are a mistake. The new iPhone is not just a phone, but also, in effect, a medical device. Not everyone wants to carry a medical device around with them. It is a similar story with other new features. In selling the iPhone, Apple has to sell not just the device itself but the lifestyle that goes along with it, and with the latest iPhones, that is a lifestyle that even most iPhone users will find strange and unfamiliar. Will I really use these features? If I do, will I notice the benefit? How long will it take me to learn to use the new iPhone? The perceived learning curve for a new device is a deterrent for customers who already have a perfectly good iPhone. Add the impact of the suddenly higher price, and it’s understandable that customers who fear that Apple lost its way with its latest designs might want to wait until it finds its way again.

The longer life of a mobile phone is, all by itself, an obstacle for manufacturers. When Apple entered the market, it blew up the idea that a mobile phone is an inherently fragile device that requires a replacement every 10 to 20 months. The original iPhone lasted more than twice that long and durability has only improved since. I used my iPhone 3GS, only the third iPhone model, for a decade before replacing it, and even then, it was a newer model with a total price below $50 that prompted me to make the upgrade. By the time I retired the old iPhone 3GS, the case had cracks all over it and the battery life had declined by more than half, but it still worked well. To put it in context, it fared far better than the Motorola phone that I had previously, which cost about the same but was showing a greater degree of wear after just two years. Longer life was the main reason the iPhone decimated the sales of all preceding mobile phone models. Now the durability of Apple devices is hurting Apple’s own sales numbers.

But this is good news for consumers and the environment. By replacing phones less often, we spend less money, generate less trash, use fewer minerals, and in general lighten our collective footprint. The carbon impact isn’t much for a device as small as a phone, but every little bit helps in a world facing runaway climate change.

A new climate-motivated selectivity in consumer purchases is creating a change in perspective and habits. When consumers believe they should go to the trouble of making products last longer, it reduces the opportunity for all factories. The experience around austerity budgets during recessions shows that these changes in habits, once established, do not easily reverse. Replacement cycles for phones and other durable products will not go back to what they were before even if it were to produce an obvious advantage for the purchaser. If people are asking how long they can make a phone last, that question won’t go away. Even if a hesitation about the latest design is the problem, consumers will remember how long their current phone lasted, and that will permanently change their expectations for future phone purchases.

Concern about Internet privacy, one of the big topics of 2018, must also be hurting the market for Internet-connected devices such as phones. Massive privacy breaches at Facebook, Google, and other companies seen as the essential utilities of the Internet make people want to spend less of their lives online. An intention to get away from or depend to a lesser degree on the Internet will make consumers feel inconsistent if they go looking to buy a new Internet device.

Apple can’t solve the problems of the Internet, and it will just have to adjust to the longer replacement cycles of everything, but it can surely do better with its product designs. The main problem with the current iPhone models is that they represent a change in lifestyle that customers didn’t ask for and aren’t sure they want. Apple can focus more of its attention on the things that customers already know they want, and it can put less emphasis on features that customers have to be persuaded to consider. It might be too late to incorporate this shift in this year’s designs, but the marketing angles will see some adjustments, and certainly by next year Apple will have designs that have a more immediate appeal to potential buyers.

I think stock analysts are in denial about the longer replacement cycles that consumers are looking for, along with other trends that represent a consumer shift away from manufactured goods. The expected growth in these categories may never materialize if product lifetimes grow faster than the consumer base is growing. Stocks whose prices incorporate the expectation of future growth may be overvalued right now, and this effect could extend to most of the stocks being traded. During this transition, a wrenching stock market correction will be hard to avoid.