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TheStreet Open House

Empty Shelves, Broken Promises at Walmart, Kmart, Sears

Stocks in this article: WMTSHLDRSHAMZNCOST

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- You know what you don't see at Amazon  (AMZN) or any other online retailer? Empty shelves.

That has been the crux of what my colleagues Rocco Pendola and Brian Sozzi have been trying to get across in recent pieces like 1 Huge Problem Killing Walmart and Its Granny-Held Stock, Sears: More Disturbing Images From The Dying Retailer, 24 Pictures From A Walmart That Make Sears Look Classy and Why Pictures Of Messy Sears and Walmart Stores Matter. Beyond the argument that bare or disheveled shelves kill sales at places like Sears (SHLD), K-Mart and Walmart  (WMT) and erode any value they had as communal spaces, they're the most direct way of telling customers that you absolutely don't care about their needs.

I tried to get this across while explaining inventory and stocking's role in the demise of 1,100 RadioShack stores and Walmart employees themselves have inundated Rocco with so many stories of cut shifts and lack of third-shift reset shelf-stocking at their stores that he just keeps adding pages to his story Mistreated Walmart Employees Speak Out About Company. But sinking sales don't seem to faze the folks at Sears Holdings, who are squeezing pennies until Lincoln screams and are content to sell off company-owned brands and real estate as needed to keep cash flowing. Walmart, meanwhile, not only doesn't seem to care that nobody's shopping its stores -- or that it's closing Sam's Club locations -- but seems legitimately stunned when critics attack its Mike "Dirty Jobs" Rowe and Canadian rock band commercials touting their plan to invest $250 billion into U.S. manufacturing.

Why do people critique them when they provide jobs and make such lofty promises? Because empty shelves and ransacked stores don't exactly instill confidence.

Those wary customers have earned their skepticism. Sears and Kmart stores look as if they've been encased in amber since the 1990s, mostly because Sears holdings spends a scant $1 to $2 per square foot updating facilities, according to International Strategy & Investment Group. By comparison, competitors such as Target spend up to $8 per square foot painting, updating registers and replacing tiles. As a result, even with 2,500 Sears and Kmart outlets and $40 billion in annual sales, Sears Holdings' revenue has plunged by 13.5% in the past four years.

Walmart, meanwhile, employs 2.2 million people and is the largest private employer in the U.S. with 1.3 million workers here alone. However, it was a huge beneficiary during the nation's economic downturn. When the U.S. economy recovered 5.7 million of the 8.7 million jobs shed during the recession, roughly 65% of those regained jobs have been of the low-wage variety. Unfortunately, the National Employment Law Project says nearly 60% of all jobs lost during the recession paid middle-income wages or better.

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