I haven't been inside a Sears store for more than 10 years, until Thursday, June 22. And, wow, did I learn a lot.
Mainly, I came away with a better understanding of why Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) is closing an additional 20 stores on top of the 245 it already planned to shutter. And why it has failed to turn a profit in 29 out of the last 37 quarters and seen same-store sales decline in 11 of the past 12 quarters.
Sears' shares rose 3.2% to $9.14 by Monday's close.
I observed alienating treatment of a loyal customer at the store in Jersey City, N.J., which was also messy and uninviting inside.
When I came upon customer Stephanie Rosso, a resident of Jersey City, she was struggling with four employees to get a simple return transaction completed for a dryer she'd bought and sent back to the warehouse that day with the delivery man. Normally, getting a refund takes about two minutes tops.
But Rosso spent 20 minutes getting the runaround from Sears staff, some of whom gave her incorrect information about store policy. That meant she'd have to come back to the store the next day. Who has time for that?
"No, that's not my address. No, that's not my number," said Rosso to the employees as they tried to find her order. "Why don't they get new technology here?"
At the store, employees said they couldn't issue Rosso a refund on the dryer until the warehouse staff verified that the appliance had arrived. As I observed, when Rosso asked one of the employees if she could call the store the next day to get the refund, she was told no.
That wasn't so, it turned out. One employee later told TheStreet that Rosso could, in fact, call to get her refund by phone.
This was a woman who needed that appliance fast. Because of what Rosso had been told, she also agreed reluctantly to charge a second dryer.
"I've been coming here for years, and it's gotten worse and worse," Rosso said in an interview with TheStreet later.
Sears spokesman Howard Riefs did not return a request for comment for this story.
On Thursday, the same day Rosso was grappling with getting a refund, things up north in Canada were falling apart for the Sears brand. Sears Canada (SRSC) filed for bankruptcy in Ontario. Although Sears Holdings and Sears Canada operate as separate entities, the encounter I witnessed at the Jersey City store was telling. The fundamental issues Sears continues to face hint that it may not be long before the U.S. retailer follows its Canadian brother.
Here are 10 photos that show what I found as I walked through the store.
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Editors' pick: Originally published June 24.
This is not a shot of your friend's dingy basement. This is a display in a Sears store near a main store entrance. Want it? You can have the couch for $319.97.
Since the store is nearly void of customers, why not throw a bunch of cardboard-packaged items in the middle of the floor?
Is that Slinky-like tube for sale? Because, if it's not, it probably should be stored in the backroom.
Although not entirely ill-stocked, the store was filled with many bare shelves.
The root of the customer service issue I watched isn't helped by Sears' outdated checkout system. This computer looks like it's from 1992.
I found an updated computer, stationed allegedly to help customers find items in the store. Sadly, it did not turn on.
While shifting through the messy shoe shelves, you might actually find an errant price tag somewhere. Good luck matching it to the shoe.
A good portion of the upstairs of this Sears store creepily appeared to be the dumping ground for broken mannequins and random boxes. Twilight Zone, anyone?
Someone, discarding his or her Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN) coffee in the clutter, must have thought the area was meant for all garbage.
Maybe Sears does have something to offer for every taste. Not a Dunkin' Donuts coffee drinker? Let's try one from McDonald's (MCD) .
A picture is worth 1,000 words, none of them with a good thing to say about Sears.