Private investment firm Comvest Partners acquires the financially troubled e-retailer, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.
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Though simple, these text messages exemplify how mobile can be multichannel, something at the core of Emmons’ strategy, and one of the reasons texting came first. “Mobile helps us differentiate as a multichannel retailer,” he explains. “Mobile is great at cross-channel.”
Early last year, Sears expanded its text message program to include marketing. One example: a text-to-win contest designed around the release of a new film, The Incredible Hulk. The contest was promoted on signs in stores and on the e-commerce site. Shoppers texted ‘Hulk’ to KMART (56278, the telecommunications short code for Sears’ sister retailer) to enter. They were immediately notified if they won or lost.
“We had great response from our customers,” Emmons says. “The thing I loved was people did text back their addresses to enter. And the vast majority of those addresses were usable. We had to call a few people. It really worked. It was real time, people were told they won right away and mailed their prizes. Those who didn’t win were prompted to enter again the next day. These customers were significantly more engaged with the brand.”
To really engage customers in the mobile realm, though, a retailer needs what is central to mobile commerce today: an m-commerce site. Which is why after text messaging, Emmons steered Sears’ mobile ship to Sears2go.com, a mobile web site developed with vendor Usablenet and launched in November.
“Before we developed Sears2go, we did the research and found there was a decent amount of traffic coming to Sears.com from mobile devices. But the site was not providing an optimized experience for mobile devices,” Emmons explains. “With Sears2go.com, we have a great place to send these people for a quick, clean, fast experience.”
The perfect storm
To make Sears2go.com happen, Emmons and his team did some PowerPoint pushing throughout the organization. Then came a fortuitous confluence of events.
First, the number of customers visiting Sears.com using smartphones and other mobile devices significantly increased. Second, the retailer found in Usablenet, Emmons says, an easy and cost-efficient way to develop and launch an m-commerce site. And third, with some education from the mobile team, departments throughout Sears bought into m-commerce.
“We were able to justify a business case behind it based on the increase in traffic we saw to Sears.com on mobile devices,” he says. “Then we got a ton of support from our internal business teams, finance teams, all sorts of people who saw our PowerPoint decks and realized the potential of this technology. It was the perfect storm.”
There was so much support and enthusiasm for the m-commerce site that development was fast and furious, in part because Sears wanted Sears2go.com live for the 2008 holiday season. The amount of time between the decision to create the mobile site and when it went live? Three months. “For a big company, this happened as fast as it possibly could,” Emmons says. “It was as quick as we could have gotten anything done.”
Sears declines to give exact m-commerce sales figures. But since it launched, Sears2go.com has been a learning experience for Emmons as an m-commerce leader.
“We’re happy. It met our expectations of traffic and sales-but in different manners than we had anticipated,” he explains. “An example: the places people are buying from. I thought use would come from a lot of urban areas. But there has been a decent amount-more than a blip on the radar-from rural areas. We’re not yet sure why.”
Emmons also learned about category and product selection in the mobile world.
“We started out with products we thought were good for the holidays. And they served us well,” he says. “But as we added things we thought were not initially important, we were surprised. Almost every day one of our top searches, for example, is ‘wheels’ or ‘rims.’ And we didn’t think people would be buying appliances on their phones, but they’re not afraid at all. We’ve been wrong in places-this is a test-and-learn team.”
The big cheese
While the team has been given a lot of freedom and has accomplished much in two years, it does depend on higher-ups for help. As the mobile leader, Emmons must work with other executives to achieve goals and continue to innovate. Creating a tight relationship between m-commerce and e-commerce has been key.
“I get a lot of ideas and access to people through our vice president of e-commerce, Rob Mills. This is a huge place, with thousands of people at the home office,” Emmons says. “Rob also will give a push now and then, which is good. But he really helps by giving us the space to develop these technologies and test and learn and get them out. He was instrumental in our mobile coupon efforts, for instance. When we were first starting that, he was the one who got all the people who needed to be in the room.”
Today, Emmons and his team have been focusing on the recent launch of the Sears mobile app, an important new component of m-commerce because it uses the computing power of a device, bypassing the need for mobile web pages, to offer a richer, more optimized customer experience. The new Sears iPhone mobile app, for example, uses the GPS technology native to iPhones to create an experience unique to each customer.
Mobile apps are the next step in m-commerce, after text messaging and m-commerce sites. Their popularity is soaring along with use of the mobile web-yet another indicator, Emmons says, of the shape of things to come.
“It’s happening as we speak,” says Emmons of m-commerce coming into its own. “I was at a conference recently and talked with a number of retailers and almost everyone was interested in getting involved. If more retailers looked at how many people are trying to access their sites on mobile phones, they would be a lot more worried about properly serving these customers.”