Breakout

Two tarnished retail titans turn to tech for a turnaround

Jeff Macke
Breakout

Two tarnished retail titans announced high-tech initiatives yesterday. While you have to respect their moxie the moves look more like death throes than turnaround plans.

Of course I'm talking about RadioShack (RSH) and Sears Holdings (SHLD). Taking the announcements in ascending order of ambition, the Plano-based RadioShack announced a partnership with tech hardware company PCH. The deal gives PCH-related companies preferred space on RadioShack.com and high-profile shelf-space at RadioShack's 2,000 remaining stores. The companies say inventors will also get "preferred financial terms" when it comes to getting product in the pipeline and in front of customers. That's potentially a good deal for inventors but RadioShack has neither the cash nor the shopper traffic to put inventors over the top. The company needs every centimeter of space it can spare to draw customers into stores. It's not in the charity business.

Speaking of terms, "connected solutions mini-boutiques" is what Sears is calling the pilot shops it's rolling out online and in three Chicago area stores. The 1,700 square foot areas will be dedicated to the integrated tech lifestyle products that seem to be all the rage this summer. Strip away the verbiage and what Sears has done is move stuff it already carries into one spot. Elliptical machines, garage door openers, radar detectors and security cameras will now be placed in the same basic area of the store. If these gadgets could talk all they'd do is beg you to pull the plug.

I'm not trying to bag on these chains. I wish them well. My point is that investors shouldn't confuse clearing out space for devices with innovation. The other point is that the "connected life" movement is waaaaay in front of itself in terms of innovative promise. It's not just Sears and RadioShack but Apple, Google and Cisco who keep promising to solve problems I don't have.

I don't need a text whenever my garage door opens. I don't care what my thermostat has to say to my microwave. It's 2014 and I can't switch between cable and Netflix (NFLX) without changing "inputs" on my television. I can't find my freaking remote controls. My DVR stops recording before overtime starts. These aren't Jetson-level problems. This stuff should be solved. If RadioShack or Sears can solve my TV problem in a practical way I'll go to their stores and so will every other parent in America. Until then I'm holding on to my wallet. Investors should probably do the same.

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