What are we really mourning when brands like Sears die?

Opinion: Expressing grief has become a spectacle—and when it comes to the closure of dimmed companies like Sears, it’s often misplaced, too

A shopper holds a Sears Canada Inc. bag for a photograph inside a mall in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Canadian retailer Sears Canada Inc. is seeking creditor protection as it works to restructure the business. Sears Canada Inc., the struggling offshoot of Sears Holdings Corp., filed for protection from creditors Thursday after running short on shoppers and cash. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

A shopper holds a Sears Canada Inc. bag for a photograph inside a mall in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, June 22, 2017. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Rob Csernyik is a journalist and former retail entrepreneur. His business reporting has been featured in the Globe and Mail, the Financial Post, and the Edmonton Journal.

When I lived in Cornwall, Ont., I used to pass through the Sears store at the local mall as a shortcut to the grocery store. Like many of its brethren across the country, the store was a 1980s-era time capsule that had seen better days.

One day while walking through the store, the music gave me pause. “Bad Cops” by Inner Circle blasted from tinny speakers. Customers continued to sift through racks of Jessica-brand dresses as though this was perfectly ordinary. But it felt like walking through a Saturday Night Live parody of a Sears experience. I thought back to that moment often as rumours of the demise of Sears grew louder. There was nothing about a shopping experience like that to mourn.

When that store, by then relegated to outlet status, was one of 59 Sears closures announced in June, a customer described by the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder as “saddened” by the loss of one her favourite stores suggested that a lack of young customers led to the company’s demise. That’s certainly part of the issue, but we should also be frank: it was a prolonged inattention to just about every aspect of the shopping experience.

In the social media era, mourning has become a spectacle. When a celebrity dies or a disaster happens, it seems like everyone has a condolence or an opinion to offer. Even the most banal expressions of grief get rounded up and quoted in the news as if they mean something profound.

Now that Sears Canada has officially received court approval to liquidate the rest of its remaining stores and assets, the obituaries for the department store brand that started this week will continue trickling out over the coming weeks and months. And amid the uncertainty over what will happen to the employees and the real estate is the inexplicably burning question of what customers think of all this—as if they weren’t already speaking with their wallets.

Consider these headlines. In Coquitlam, B.C., the local paper said customers were “sad to see Sears go.” The Montreal Gazette called the shoppers and staff saddened; “Like a family,” the headline read. One of the country’s largest newspapers, The Toronto Star, proclaimed customers were “devastated” in a headline.

MORE: What happens to executive retention bonuses if Sears shuts down?

Because it’s topical and an easy way to add local colour to a national story, we can expect to see more customers interviewed about their feelings about the Sears closure. But customers aren’t mourning the loss of the underwhelming Sears experience: They’re expressing something personal about their worldview.

In my own retail experience, I’ve heard customer feedback when stores close down. I worked at a store in Montreal that was liquidated by the parent chain, an experience that helped me a few years later when I was a retail entrepreneur and had to put closing signs of my own up—twice.

When customers expressed their feelings about my business closing, I was surprised at how many of them spoke as though their loss was somehow profound. I was losing my livelihood, just as Sears employees are. Yet in some bastardization of “the customer is always right,” their feelings on the subject were surprisingly vocal.

One memory stands out. A woman came in, near tears, and talked about how sad it was that my store was closing. Just one problem though: Because I was the only employee, I knew she’d never shopped there before. I informed two customers who witnessed the scene after she left and we all had a laugh about her misplaced emotions.

She wasn’t upset about the store, but about losing something that it represented to her. And she wasn’t alone. I heard customers express sadness at not having an extra option to shop at. There was disdain against fellow townspeople who don’t spend enough locally, or have “good taste.” There was a confirmation of their fear that the store was a victim of outside forces—like foreign or online retailers—pushing out a Canadian company. Feelings were so diverse that it wouldn’t have been possible to weave together a narrative for a headline. But, because we like things tidy, the story is going to be that people are sad.

MORE: A timeline of Sears’s slow-motion collapse

And that aligns with studies that show that’s how people’s brains are wired when it comes to brands: they make the loss personal, an expression of previously held sentiments. “Functional MRI neuro-imagery shows that, when evaluating brands, consumers primarily use emotions (personal feelings and experiences) rather than information (brand attributes, features and facts),” according to Psychology Today‘s Peter Noel Murray. This sheds some light on why people would seem sad that a bad shopping experience is being wiped from the Canadian retail slate; in regular relationships with a brand, we identify the deeply personal element, and when it ceases to exist, it’s an emotional experience.

That emotional experience isn’t always the same, but the sound bites might suggest otherwise. Studies have framed relationships with brands as having the same intangible qualities as friendships or grieving. A 1995 paper called “Breakdown and Dissolution of Person-Brand Relationships” looks at the relationships on a spectrum taking into account the wide variety of forms and reasons for dissolution. “As with people,” the authors write, “not all brands matter equally in psychological or social ways to consumers.” They use a framework that spans across different relationship types from potential friends to crucial friends and take into account the wide variety of personal factors that affect a relationship.

Another study, “Requiem for a Brand: Consumer Response to Brand Elimination,” says that indeed customers exhibit the four stages of grief when a company is closed—but there is a limit. For all the public grieving, individual feelings have been observed to be more tempered. Acceptance of the brand’s end, they write, is “more common than disbelief or grief.”

That was quickly the case when Target retreated from the Canadian market; customers seemed to be pretty clear-eyed about the company’s store closures. But that was because they felt maligned. The brand had done a poor job entering Canada, and customers weren’t happy with the bare shelves, the customer service, or the prices.

MORE: What really happened inside Target Canada

So why look at the loss of Sears any differently? It was an uninspired retail business that eschewed innovation for years. Their last-ditch attempts were too little, too late. They kept untidy, outdated stores in which they sold bland merchandise, often for more than you might pay elsewhere in the mall.

Yes, Sears has been around longer than Target was, and we all loved receiving the Wish Book catalogue as children. The chain certainly has enough history in various communities that its closure merits some examination. But that doesn’t mean we have to frame the chain’s demise as some sort of collective tragedy.

In death, there can be a strong pull to mythologize and sanitize the dead, to overlook faults. As the protracted demise of Sears continues, let’s be sure to remember that fewer and fewer Canadians actually had a connection with the brand. There’s something misleading about mourning it in grand scale. If customers were going to be so upset by the brand’s death, after all, they would have shopped there more when it was alive.


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