Sears’s Dueling Inventories Handicap Customers And Kneecap Associates

Written by Frank Hayes
June 15th, 2011

Poor Sears. On June 9, The Consumerist shared the story of a customer who went to a Sears store to exchange a faulty dehumidifier and was told the store was back-ordered on that model and couldn’t swap the lemon for another one. The customer got his refund, went home, ordered the same model for in-store pickup, got his E-mail confirmation, returned to the store and collected the dehumidifier. The customer’s conclusion: “And that’s why I try to avoid Sears.”

It’s easy to knock Sears, with its long history of making customers unhappy with out-of-stock items, whether they were actually out of stock or not. (In a comment to The Consumerist post, a Sears representative blamed the associate for being unable to find the item in stock, then lied to cover his incompetence.) On the other hand, maybe the problem isn’t as human-centric as that. It could be that Sears’ dueling inventory systems are to blame.

What actually happened at the store, according to the customer, is that the associate first checked the inventory system, which showed there was one dehumidifier left in stock. Then the associate disappeared into the back and returned to announce that there were none in stock, telling the customer that was no surprise: “I just sold 2 of that same model today.”

Then, after the customer asked whether more dehumidifiers would be in within a few days, the associate reportedly checked the computer again and announced, “Oh, no—it’s back-ordered!” If that was a lie, it wasn’t just elaborate—it was pointless. Why would an associate make up a back-ordered status for an item if it was actually going to show up at the store in a day or two?

What’s at least as likely is that two different inventory systems came into play here—one for stores, the other for online. In-store inventory is easy to reconcile in real time: An associate can walk to the back, check the stockroom and, if necessary, flag that an item is out of stock. And that works fine (except for the unhappy customer who can’t make the purchase)—but only until online inventory and same-day in-store pickup gets involved.

For example, if the Web site says there are five dehumidifiers at a particular store, and that number can’t be updated in real time, then the store has to hold out five dehumidifiers against the possibility that five people will buy online and want to pick up the product at that store right away.

Sears is reportedly in the process of merging its inventory systems so that everything shows up in one inventory (it’s supposed to be the online inventory). Apparently that hasn’t quite happened yet, which would explain why a dehumidifier showed up in a store’s inventory but could only be sold to a customer online.

A mess? Sure, and it’s one that’s almost impossible to explain to the customer.


One Comment | Read Sears’s Dueling Inventories Handicap Customers And Kneecap Associates

  1. Ron Ziff Says:

    It is a very typical story. In my local California branch I shopped for a dishwasher. What I found out was that Sears charged an extra $100 for a city permit. However, the city does not require a permit for a dishwasher! To top it off, the associate told me to come back tomorrow. Today was not a good day to order a dishwasher because the computer system was adding a Florida sales tax to all California dishwashers and they couldn’t seem to work around it.


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