Sears Canada Has Self-Inflicted Black Friday Headaches

Sears Canada tried something new this year, in an attempt to compete with its U.S. neighbors who have been annually siphoning off Canadian customers on Black Friday. Those deep-discounted U.S. sales prompted Canadians to cross the border for bargains. So the chain advertised that it would match the sale price of any U.S. retailer. That's when the trouble started.

According to a story in The Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper, Canadian consumers were promised price-matching on any U.S. Black Friday sale, but store associates took a far more limited view of things. Here's the Sears Canada Ad: "Simply present us with a copy of the advertisement showing that the item you wish to buy is currently advertised in the U.S. at a lower price (Canadian dollar taken at par). Once our associates verify that the item is in stock and available for immediate sale at another retailer, you will receive your price match discount. Only applies at time of purchase on identical items."

And here's what several of the newspaper's readers experienced: Rejections on the grounds that they only wanted to match the prices of "four or five appliances advertised." One Canadian consumer profiled even had a flyer from the U.S. Sears stores and selected items with the identical SKUs.

The story told of a consumer who appealed the matter to the highest level at Sears Canada, was told the price would be matched, but the store still resisted.

Of even greater concern is evidence of merged channel fears, where associates try to draw impossible—and irrelevant—Web-to-in-store distinctions. From The Toronto Star article: "After printing out the U.S. price, [the consumer] went back to the store and was told he couldn't get the matching price because it was a Web offer. Said the consumer: 'I politely informed (the store associate) that it's not a Web offer. It's from a store catalogue and it's the price in the store.' [The associate] points to the Web address and says, 'See? It says Sears.com.'"

There's no question that this issue illustrates a classic case of poor training and/or communication with store associates, which is hardly a Canadian-only problem. Such communication is difficult at any time of year, given the huge turnover of young associates. But when you add in thousands of temporary seasonal employees, the challenge becomes almost impossible.

As much of an issue as employee communication is, however, that's not the key problem here. It's this phantom distinction some retail execs are trying to make between in-store and Web.

Wal-Mart has been having similar issues with its price matches, where the company has tried dismissing Web prices as some sort of irrelevant channel.

The point of such a distinction—on the eve of 2011—is strange. Is it that a $50 billion chain doesn't think it's fair to compete with a $2 million Web-only shipper with much lower overhead? Or, even worse, a $200,000 business run out of someone's garage? If so, set an internal size limit and publish—prominently—all of the qualifying merchants. But almost any list would include Amazon.com and the online operations of the largest chains (Target.com, Sears.com, Bestbuy.com, etc.)

Barring a chain from price matching because it's primarily Web-based doesn't make much sense. This is triply true because it's setting up a false barrier. If the criteria is a newspaper/magazine ad or any printed flyer, that's not much of a limiter these days. The price of printed ads is plummeting—as more publications get desperate or get shut down—so that distinction is actually going to subject you to more of those garage retailers.

Of course, when you refuse to price match your own chain's site, this slips into the world of the bizarre.

As for the Sears Canada situation, store associates certainly must abide by corporate policies. But if those policies make little sense, the most obedient salesforce in the world won't help.

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