Once, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was a retailing giant with few rivals.
The signs over its doors promised, "Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back."
Times have changed.
Best Buy, Home Depot and Lowe's have lured its electronics, tools and appliance customers away. You can buy cheaper, hipper apparel and home products at Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl's. Sears beckons you with the slogan, "The good life at a great price. Guaranteed," but if the good life is available for less elsewhere, all that's left is the guarantee.
Michael Burnett found even that lacking after he purchased a $1,007.98 LCD Sylvania television and three-year warranty Jan. 10 from the Sears store in Westminster.
After 2 1/2 months of use, the 37-inch flat-panel TV stopped working, the 43-year-old Postal Service employee said.
"I shopped around before I bought the TV," Burnett said. "I'm 40-something-years-old, and Sears has been around forever. I figured, better to trust them than some big-screen TV shop that's only been around for a few years. I was really shocked by the lack of care and service I received when the TV stopped working."
Burnett first called for help April 2 and scheduled an appointment for the next day. That night, Sears called to cancel the service call. On April 3, Burnett called again and was told the next available appointment was April 5.
On April 4, Sears called to ask him to schedule an appointment.
"I told them I did that last night after they canceled my appointment," Burnett said. "The Sears customer service rep said no one put it on the schedule, and the next service call would be on April 10."
Burnett didn't give up there. He drove to Westminster to tell a manager his problem face-to-face. Burnett explained his situation and asked if a refund was possible since the TV was less than three months old.
"I was told no refunds after 30 days," Burnett said. "I had to wait."
When a technician did show April 10, he informed Burnett that the TV's inverter board, a high frequency circuit that helps power the screen, was bad.
"He had to order a new one," Burnett said. "He said it would take one week to be shipped to my house, but another three weeks before he could come back to install it. I went to the store, and a manager told me the part would be there in three or four days. He also told me to call back to schedule the repair."
Over the next three weeks, Burnett found himself stuck in an unending loop of Jekyll-and-Hyde-like customer service interactions.
When the part never showed, Burnett called. Sears told him they weren't sure when the part would arrive. In a visit to the store, a sales rep asked him if he wanted to rent and pay for a regular TV while his was out of commission. On another visit, a manager asked if anyone offered him a comparable, loaner TV. (Burnett accepted the offer.)
In a call he received out of the blue from Sylvania, Burnett was told the part was no longer available, and he should get a refund. Checking back with Sears, yet another manager told him the part was shipped. Oh yes, and he would get no refund.
"It's so absurd," Burnett said. "I don't even want to deal with them anymore. I don't even trust them to fix the TV. I just want a refund, but they won't give me one and they won't give me another TV."
By the time I got involved, Burnett had received the part, but he still wanted a refund.
Sylvania didn't respond to two voice mails from me. But Sears Holdings in Chicago responded right away: No way.
"We can repair it, but we can't refund his money," said Chris Braithwaite, a Sears spokesman. "We're willing to hold up our end of that bargain. The warranty doesn't cover refunds if the product can be repaired."
Braithwaite said he could not explain why delivery of the part took more than a month or why scheduling a service call was so difficult.
"He should have been given a loaner TV," he said. "Everyone should be on the same page, and that message should be consistent."
At least the no-refund-no-new-TV message was consistent, right?
When I called Burnett to share the bad news with him, he surprised me with his own news.
First, he told me that a woman from Sears left an authorization number on his voice mail to get a refund. But when he took that code to Sears, no one knew anything about it. Faced with more malarkey, Burnett almost gave up.
"I asked to speak to a manager, and I ended up with one who was very considerate and very helpful," Burnett said. "I told him my story. I asked if I could just keep the loaner 42-inch Sharp. He agreed to it if I brought back my old one. That's all I wanted."
Puzzled, I called Sears. Braithwaite was unaware of the resolution, saying only, "We're just happy the customer is satisfied."
What just happened there? Usually, I have some neat and tidy lesson to help other consumers avoid such shenanigans. This time, I'm confused, too.
The message I thought Sears was trying to send was that it would abide by its repair warranty regardless of how badly it mucked up customer service in the process. It's not a great lesson consumers want to learn, but one that makes some sense for companies.
But the three-part message that Sears sent me was: A. There is no communication whatsoever between corporate, its customer service department and the local stores. B. It has no earthly idea how to follow through on service calls. C. Its customer service performance is abysmal and lacks consistent policies.
In today's highly competitive retail market, Sears can't bank on its old reputation. One rule of retailing that hasn't changed is that you must train your staff to take care of your customers.
Whether you're big or small, a veteran or a newcomer, a large chain or an independent business, and especially in a tight economy, if you're not selling something unique and valuable (which Sears is not), you'd better differentiate yourself with outstanding service.
Sears kicked the pooch on this one. What little good Burnett experienced came too little, too late.
"I'm satisfied with what I got," Burnett said. "I don't have a warranty for the Sharp TV, but I don't want to have anything to do with Sears anymore."