A tale of two retailers

December 28, 2011

The two biggest expectations-defying retailers of the past decade were Sears Holdings and the Apple Store. Expectations could hardly have been higher when the former was created: it was one of those rare deals where the stock of the acquiring company went up on the news, and in an article headlined “Eddie’s Master Stroke“, Businessweek waxed positively rhapsodic about the prospects for the company becoming the next Berkshire Hathaway. Three years earlier, of course, it had published a column headlined “Sorry, Steve: Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work“.

There are lots of reasons why Apple Stores succeeded while Sears stores have failed, not least the fact that people really want what Apple is selling. But the biggest and most obvious difference, I think, is in the two companies’ approach to spending money. Apple Stores are the most expensive on the planet: whatever it costs to make them insanely great, it will get spent. Meanwhile Eddie Lampert seems to have exactly the same attitude — only instead of spending money on his stores, he spends it on stock buybacks.

While retailers generally spend $6 to $8 per square foot a year on updating their stores, Sear’s spends only about $1.50 to $2, notes ISI analyst Greg Melich. That is not even enough to keep up with depreciation and amortization.

Amazingly, Sears has spent $5.2 billion over the past five years buying back its stock, more than twice as much as on capital investment.

Steve Jobs was never very good at financial engineering; Eddie Lampert has never been very good at anything else. Lampert likes to buy things which already exist; Jobs liked to spend money building things the likes of which the world had never seen.

One of my favorite new toys is the Apple Store app for the iPhone. You walk into an Apple Store, find any product selling for less than $100, and scan the barcode with your phone’s camera. The app then asks you if you want to buy the product; if you do, you just type in your iTunes password, and you’re done. The purchase is charged to your iTunes account, and you can waltz out of the store without interacting with a single salesperson.

It’s just another small way in which Apple is revolutionizing the retail experience. And it seems to me that if you’re an ambitious retailer, then if you don’t want to revolutionize the retail experience, at least somewhere, somehow, you’re doing something wrong. Which does contrast, rather, with the way that Eddie Lampert extolled Sears when he bought it, saying the store was “every bit as good as any of the competition”.

Well, it wasn’t for long.

Update: Jeff Matthews reminds us that Eddie Lampert actually compared Sears to Apple in last year’s letter to shareholders. “Like Apple,” writes Lampert, Sears tries to “create long-term value” by “improving our operating performance, innovating, and delighting customers”. Matthews also notes:

An investor with access to a Bloomberg machine can spot one difference between Sears and Apple that would make a Sears shareholder throw up: even at current prices, Apple shares are cheaper than Sears, at 8.3X EBITDA versus 10.2X for Sears.
Oh, and we used EBITDA to compare the valuation, since Sears doesn’t have any earnings to speak of.

Like Apple,

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