Sears Learns That Merged-Channel Is All About Visibility. And If Systems Are Flawed, You Don't Want That Stuff Visible

Sears has been going through a rough patch these days, but a recent detailed customer complaint about how a ship-to-store order was handled is illustrative for reasons that go far beyond this retailer. It's a powerful reminder that what makes merged-channel work is visibility through tech automation, provided that what is visible is actually correct.

As chains become more merged-channel and outright encourage customers to fly back and forth between mobile, in-store, online, call centers and Twitter interactions, the lack of visibility into real-time inventory is going to create headaches much worse than mere out-of-stocks. Confusion and supply-chain holes that were once only known to associates are now becoming frighteningly visible to shoppers.

Making this worse, customer service is slow to react to these customer discoveries because, to the customer-service reps, this is nothing new. They forget that it's new and maddening to customers.

This sad tale, which comes to us courtesy of The Consumerist, started with a customer this month trying to buy a camera from Sears and opting to use in-store pickup. The system initially accepted the order, but then cancelled it because the item was no longer available. The customer then gave up on the store and asked to have the camera delivered.

Note: When an in-store purchase is declined because that store doesn't have any more of that product but the site does have access to more, shouldn't that automatically pop up as a customer option? Why lose the orders of customers who might not think to try the Web site directly?

In this instance, that didn't help, but it did illustrate another system hole. The Web system issued a confirmation of shipment and it gave an expected delivery date.

The customer's credit card was charged, but the item never arrived. Customer service then said it needed seven business days to research the status. Really? You can check out the link for lots more details, but it seems that a lot more effort was being spent than was merited.

The point is that 10 days after the order failed to arrive, Sears couldn't even tell the customer whether the package had been shipped. This is all about visibility within the retailer. A Sears case manager was depending on a human reply from a warehouse manager to determine whether the order had been filled. Where's the automation? And if the automation to support it is not in place, merged-channel is impossible. Or at least it shouldn't be permitted.

When IT fails, that's an IT problem. When the IT was never put in place, that's a complete failure of the business. There are lots of reasons to fix inventory system holes. Public humiliation is just another one.