HOFFMAN ESTATES – As the most iconic and historic retailer in the U.S. and owner of some of America’s greatest brands, Sears, Roebuck & Co. made a major jump into social media with the launch of MySears.com last spring. It now has 1.9 million monthly unique visits; (the Sears.com site has about 19 million).
Thin-skinned Sears Holdings (SHLD) is not. In contrast to many retail sites, Sears is willing to publish some opinions that are very critical of Sears products.
In the past, Sears has not been known for its inventiveness and bold thinking; a few years ago, analysts struggled to understand how such a company could stay relevant today. But with the launch of My Sears, and other unique efforts (today it started franchising the Sears Auto brands to shuttered Pontiac dealers), the company seems to have found a space not only in social media, but a new retailing universe.
The company is in a unique position to launching a social media product. Namely, it has a stable of much-loved brands that consumers already feel that they “own.” In addition, consumers are quite familiar with all aspects of the stores. Even naming the site “My Sears” made it clear that this Sears site was “owned” by its consumers, and not just the company.
We shot a few email questions Rob Harles, the VP of the MySears Online Community, about how they run the community and what it is doing for Sears.
BrandlandUSA: How did the company overcome the typical fear of having critical comments on its own website?
Harles: When Sears Holdings first launched the MySears community in May 2009, we were looking for new ways to interact and receive feedback from customers in order to find ways to improve the shopping experience, whether online or in-store. We recognize that the ability to interact with customers and receive their feedback is key to our goal of continually improving the shopping experience for everyone.
The MySears community allows customers to share their insights, experiences and product reviews by creating a dialogue between Sears and customers. Visitors to the MySears community engage in discussion forums, blogging, ratings, reviews, idea generation, polls and surveys, and general feedback. The MySears community demonstrates Sears Holdings’ commitment to interacting with and responding to customers as it has done throughout its 125 year history.
BrandlandUSA: Many companies would have separated the Kmart and Sears brands when doing the MySears project. I would have thought it wouldn’t have worked, but it seems to. How did you decide to combine the two when they are such distinct brands?
Harles: Sears Holdings is committed to providing an unparalleled online experience where customers can shop with ease and convenience. To assist our customers make that important buying decision, the communities are highly integrated on both Sears.com and Kmart.com. We decided to use the same platform and allow members to shop either brand while having one profile, one login and unified social applications including rewards across both brands to offer consumers a richer and more convenient shopping experience.
Both the Sears.com and Kmart.com sites feature reviews and discussions generated from the MySears community. Likewise, the MySears community enables customers to view all of Sears and Kmart’s online product offerings, give them an opportunity to read and write product reviews, browse the site by categories and purchase products without leaving the MySears site. We are proud of the results generated from our decision to integrate MySears with the Sears and Kmart brands.
Sears.com was recently ranked second in the e-Tailing Group’s Annual Customer Experience Index, and received recognition as the second best score in e-Tailing’s Annual Mystery Shopping Study. This industry recognition is further evidence that Sears continues to listen to customers’ ideas and suggestions to improve the online shopping experience.
BrandlandUSA: Does it take a large staff to monitor the site? What sort of staff infrastructure does it take to run the MySears operation?
Harles: Although we cannot share specific details on infrastructure, Sears is dedicated to ensuring that customers are encouraged to fully interact and engage with other MySears community members as well as shop more conveniently with the added features and shopping tools.
BrandlandUSA: Have you had input from the thousands of retired Sears and Kmart associates who live around North America? It would seem that that audience would be useful to the company?
Harles: The participants in the online community on the MySears Community Site are our associates, retirees, suppliers and vendors, and the public, all of whom are interested in voicing their opinions, sharing ideas, and finding others who share the same interests.
The MySears community accepts all input and feedback from all audiences in order to continually listen to customers, providing great value, choice and convenience in their shopping experience.
BrandlandUSA: Is it really useful in consumer research? It would seem like it would be, but curious to what extent.
Harles: Sears Holdings is a leader in the online retail space because of our customers’ feedback and the knowledge gained from listening and engaging with them. In fact, the “Ideas” feature on the MySears web site invites all members to contribute recommendations, which are then commented on by others and ultimately considered for implementation by Sears Holdings’ management. Nearly all content on the MySears community will be written and contributed by customers.
We’re constantly listening to feedback and monitoring the content on the MySears community from customers and adapting to their feedback in order to provide an integrated suite of online and in-store offerings to meet their needs and build lifetime relationships. Our customers give us inspiration for a number of our best ideas.
BrandlandUSA: How do you protect the site from fake users who are trying to game the site to their advantage or amusement?
Harles: We work hard to monitor for spam, inappropriate or offensive material in order to protect all MySears community members. We want our conversations to be authentic and we do our best to foster an environment where our members/customers feel comfortable that their voice is being heard.
Several active members actually push back on people who try to subvert the community. It makes us feel good that there are members who are engaged enough to care and help us identify and push back on those who are not what they seem.
More information and additional guardrails that Sears has put into place to avoid fraudulent or inappropriate activity is available at www.mysears.com/terms_of_service.
Pollard: Are there some new products introduced or old products revived that came through input from MySears users? On your home page a few days ago, there was a reader looking for an old gas stove that he wanted reintroduced. Are there many of these instances?
Harles: Truly, one of the best features and rewards we all at Sears experience from our community is the number of instances where members have pushed for new or revived products and services. We have had military personnel tell about the best way to ship to them and save time, enthusiasts who wanted us to sell a particular toy; we have also had a number of requests for products that we just don’t carry, and this has led us to expand our assortments and partnerships. Our Marketplace is a direct reflection of this new knowledge of demand.
BrandlandUSA: What are the main reasons folks find the MySears site?
Harles: The MySears launch supports Sears Holdings’ belief in the power of community and in creating new and better ways to engage its customers, associates and vendors who are invited to register, create a profile, upload photos, share their personal experiences and ideas, and connect with each other.
We continue to experience membership increases because MySears offers customers a highly-versatile venue to connect with other like-minded individuals and get informed advice on their purchases and answers to their questions. In addition, it empowers customers and associates by providing a place where their voices can be heard so that we in turn can make vital improvements to the store, product offerings and overall, shopping experience.