The move to embrace social networks is part of a coordinated effort by Sears to shed its 116-year-old heritage and become more relevant and attractive to younger consumers. Although Sears is still the fifth-largest in the country, a disproportionate chunk of that $47 billion annual revenue is coming from older consumers who grew up with the brand. To secure its future, it needs to appear more in tune with those younger shoppers.
It's not a coincidence that, for the last couple of years, Sears has been at the forefront of several major technologies, almost all of which resonant overwhelmingly with Gen Y, including social networking, mobile and companion shopping. These include being the first retailer to support 2-D barcodes, a new approach called a GiveTogether gifting program and a GPS-based mobile commerce application.
"We've really put innovation at the forefront of what we are trying to accomplish at Sears and Kmart," said Sears' Vice president of Community Rob Harles. "We're doing a lot of experimentation. Some of it works. Some doesn’t. No harm no foul if it doesn't. "
Currently, the OpenID platform in use by Sears has limited functionality. It enables people who use the MySears and MyKmart communities to use their existing IDs and passwords to write product reviews and share information. It's the future updates that will be more compelling as they will easily allow those users to share their posts and product reviews via the social networks.
"It wasn’t a major effort for the IT department," said Rob Harles, Sears' vice president of community. "A few months ago, we started this whole enterprise on the basis of we needed to know our customers better, pure and simple. It's kind of like having a start-up here at Sears and that in itself is kind of surprising."
He said he created the first community by himself one evening. The features and functions of the communities have continually increased. "One of the things we thought we'd experiment with was this idea that we could open it up to other social networks," Harles said. "We had a premise that nobody is going to sign-up with us and start a new profile. People had asked why they couldn't just use their Facebook IDs."
The company chose the open-source OpenID platform and was assisted by JanRain, a third-party partner that specializes in authentication technology. "It wasn’t an incredibly difficult thing to do with one exception: There are so many different protocols that each social network has," Harles said."We got it up in a couple of weeks but it took another week or two to optimize each interaction. Facebook is a little different than Twitter which is different than MySpace. All the ways you authenticate with each tended to be different."
"Sears and Kmart’s adoption of OpenID demonstrates its fundamental business value; it makes things easier for Web users," said an OpenID foundation storyabout the launch. "In this case, OpenID makes the online shopping experience richer and simpler for customers. While much has been made of the impact of the social Web, the action taken today by Sears and Kmart shows how relevant OpenID is becoming to mainstream retailers." The foundation also called the Sears move "a major step forward in OpenID adoption by a top ten retailer outside of the technology industry."