Why I Didn’t Buy My Last Fridge at Sears

And why I went to a local store instead. (No, price isn't the reason.)

Here’s a myth: A box of baking soda keeps a refrigerator smelling fresh. Maybe that’s the case for some people, like New Yorkers who eat out most of the time or families that … well … clean their refrigerator. Our house has three teenage kids and two working parents. We don’t have the time to clean our refrigerator. It really smells. That’s because if the food doesn’t get eaten it usually just crawls away on its own. A pallet of baking soda wouldn’t make much of a difference.

We’re used to the smell, but about a year ago, the clanking got our attention. The sound was ominous. It told us that, after 10 years of loyal service, our fridge was reaching the end of its well-lived life. So we decided it was time for a new fridge.

Sears sells refrigerators. And home appliances. And a lot of other great stuff too. My house sits between Upper Darby and King of Prussia—almost equidistant between two Sears stores. Sears is certainly a trusted name brand. The chain’s been around for a hundred years. But did we buy our new fridge at Sears?

Nope. We bought from Jake’s Appliances instead. We never really considered Sears. Jake’s (real store, different name) is just better. Whenever I see news that big retailers like Sears are closing down stores, or that Best Buy is having a “tough” holiday season I think about Jake. He runs a small retail business. And, although there’s room for improvement, he’s figured out how to do brick-and-mortar retail in an online world.

We knew that Jake’s sells fridges because we get mailers from Jake’s, and we see the store’s ads on our local TV stations and in our local papers. I frequently find myself driving by Jake’s because the store is located on a busy road near me. Oh, and we know others who have bought from Jake’s and recommend them. Jake’s has a buzz. Not a Kim Kardashian-breaking-up-with-Kris-Humphries buzz. But they’re out there.

Sears has no buzz. I don’t know anyone who shops there. And if they are shopping there, no one seems to be talking about them. If I look hard I bet I’ll see that they’re spending a lot on advertising. But that’s the thing: I have to look hard. I don’t seem to see their name anywhere. I don’t drive by their stores. I don’t even drive by a billboard for their stores. I don’t seem to see their name on websites I visit, newspapers I read or TV shows I watch. I don’t think about them at all.

To get people into a retail store, the right kind of marketing and advertising is crucial. Sears needs to improve in this area. I know this from years of experience and because I watch Mad Men.

Jake’s, a store 1/1000th of Sears’ size, has mixed up local, online, TV and print campaigns. They’ve generated word of mouth. Their marketing succeeded in making me think of them first when it came time to buy a new refrigerator.

I walked through the Sears at KOP a few years ago (to get to the nearby Cinnabon). My recollection: It pretty much looked like when my mom dragged me there to buy a new TV set … to watch Laverne & Shirley on Tuesday nights. Get it? Sears was the same, tired old place. Apparently, I’m not alone with this impression. Sears CEO Lou D’Ambrosio, a smart and capable guy, is saying the same thing. That’s because if anyone’s learned anything from Apple and Starbucks, it’s that retail stores need to be cozy and attractive places to visit. If I wanted to visit a run-down, tired-looking, less-than-clean place with appliances I’d visit my own kitchen.

Jake’s store, by comparison, was much smaller and also much nicer. They provided coffee to customers. They had sitting areas for old people and bored husbands. The lighting was warm.  There were many appliances on display—and many others to be perused via computer and catalog. It’s kind of tough to make a room full of refrigerators and ovens appealing to a guy over the age of … well … 10. But Jake’s was better than average.

Jake’s beats Sears on marketing and appearance, but that’s not the biggest reason we bought there. And it wasn’t price. Everyone thinks it’s price. But it’s really not. Sure, the price of stuff has to be in the ballpark. But the biggest reason we bought from Jake’s was because of service. And that’s the magic pill for big retailers like Sears, Best Buy and others. Service in the store, in the home, and on the web is how retailers like Jake’s survive and profit.

Unlike most retailers I visit where the average 14-year-old salesperson knows more about her iPhone than the store’s products, the sales guys at Jake’s were older and more experienced. I’m thinking that Jake pays his guys a little more. Offers them a long-term employment opportunity. Provides a little training. And Jake himself is always around, keeping an eye on things. The attention we received inside of Jake’s was respectful and knowledgeable. We weren’t a distraction from “Angry Birds.” We weren’t getting blank stares. Smart business owners invest in good people.

And they invest in technology. Sears actually does this really well—way better than Jake’s. Type in “refrigerator” in Google, and the Sears website appears at the top. But I’ve never purchased a $1,000 item from a website before. And I’ve never purchased from Sears’ website. It seems easy to do. (You can even arrange for installation.) But my question is: What happens AFTER I click on the “buy” button?

Successful retailers get that technology is more important for AFTER the sale than before. If I’m spending a thousand bucks on something online I need to feel comfortable that shortly after I click on “buy,” I’m hearing from a human being who personally takes responsibility for … me. Not someone in a call center near Fargo. And after the product is delivered, good retailers will use technology to keep that customer. If I were to purchase a new fridge from Sears, do I continue to get emails from Sears a month later? A year later? Do I get advice for getting the best use of my fridge? Or safety updates? Tips for getting rid of the odor from my son’s two-week-old pizza?

I bought my fridge at Jake’s because his marketing got my attention, his store was inviting, his salesperson spent more time with me than with his iPhone, and of course his pricing was competitive. I would do the same at Sears if they could promise the same. And I would keep coming back to them if their technology was used to keep me up-to-date, informed and interested in other products and services.

This is how small brick-and-mortar retailers can succeed in an online world. And the big guys too.