Sears Canada Inc. should have been able to adapt to a competitive threat that looked strikingly similar to the business it started in the early 1950s – home delivery of everything from socks to refrigerators.
Instead, it was knocked off course while trying to preserve a once-mighty business whose customers were looking elsewhere – both at home and on shopping trips. It has been painful to watch the struggles to save the venerable chain while it has been under bankruptcy protection, including a last-ditch, and ultimately failed, effort led by the company's executive chairman, Brandon Stranzl, to salvage some form of the operation.
On Tuesday, Sears Canada said it will ask the Ontario Superior Court for approval to start the process of liquidating 131 stores next week. More than 12,000 jobs are about to disappear as locations get shuttered.
It's also a blow to commercial landlords still dealing with scads of unused square footage from the collapse of Target Canada in 2015.
The development represents an unceremonious end to the Sears Canada banner that, not that long ago, was the picture of durability on the Canadian retail scene.
It fended off Wal-Mart and other big-box giants from the United States as they invaded the country and absorbed weaker domestic rivals, notably Eaton's. Its catalogue was a staple in homes across the country.
It's easy to write off Sears Canada as the latest victim of the Amazon-ization of the retail landscape. Surely, goes the conventional wisdom, department stores in suburban malls are getting to be as important in today's world as airship travel and eight-track tape players.
Yet, nearly everything in its history suggests it should have been up to the task of arriving at a business model suited for the times, even as Amazon.com Inc. expanded into more business lines, including groceries, and it now appears, prescription medicines.
The company stuck for too long to a strategy that produced solid results in the 1990s and 2000s, forgetting to check where cracks might be appearing in a widespread empire. Not helping matters were a string of changes to management as revenues were halved over the course of a decade.
Customers who grew up with Sears's Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances were aging, and their children preferred specialization over variety shopping in suburban malls. But that observation fails to explain the fact that department stores still attract shoppers.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. remains the budget-conscious consumer's go-to choice, and its entry into the grocery business has brought tough competition to Canadian food retailing. Canadian Tire Corp. is a solid destination for customers looking for an espresso maker along with a case of motor oil. At the high end, Seattle-based Nordstrom Inc.'s slow-and-steady Canadian expansion continues apace.
Sears Canada has been decidedly mid-market, making it tough to compete on price with the former because of its cost base, and on quality of the latter because it's not known for high-end goods.
It was one of the first Canadian retailers to jump into e-commerce in the late 1990s, which made a world of sense. The company had grown up with a mail-order model, its ubiquitous catalogue thick with clothing, sporting goods, outdoor decor and power tools. Moving to the Internet was a natural progression.
However, Sears Canada's online business was not able to be a dominant force when it needed to – as Amazon's popularity mushroomed and the catalogue segment shrunk – and it was slow to react to the shifts to in-person shopping. By the time it touted a major reinvention in April, focusing on discount designer fashions and inexpensive private label products, it was already on the path to bankruptcy court, having bled red ink for four years.
The saga has been rough on investors, employees and pensioners alike, and it ends with another name in Canadian retailing disappearing. Its business model worked like a charm for generations, and that can be the toughest, and most crucial, thing to decide to change.