Sears and Kmart, once America's leading retailers, are bleeding cash and shutting down stores, as once loyal shoppers abandon them in droves.
Sears' sales have dropped from $41 billion in 2000 to $15 billion in 2015.
Kmart, which merged with Sears in 2005, has seen its sales plunge from $37 billion to $10 billion in the same period.
In interviews with more than a dozen long-time customers of the two stores, people repeatedly cited the same reasons for taking their business elsewhere: lack of customer service, poor-quality products, a lengthy checkout process, and messy, "depressing" stores.
Here's what they told us.
'I have to beg them' to take my money
Several people claimed that they were unable to find any cashiers when trying to check out.
Robert Hoke, 69, of Baltimore, Maryland, said he has been a loyal Sears customer for life.
"Sears was my go-to store for just about everything," he said. "Now I do my best to avoid going into the local store."
He said he's visited the store about six times in the last two years and only once made a purchase.
"It is really bad when you have to go through a frustrating ordeal just to get them to take your money," he said. "It's like I have to beg them to take it!"
Hoke said he went to Sears a couple months ago to buy a new lawn mower, but left and went to Home Depot when he couldn't find anyone to help him.
"It's not a mystery as to why Sears is bleeding cash," he said. "Actually the 'cash' is walking out the door unspent, or even worse, it has just stopped entering altogether. No bogus rewards program or selling cheap stuff for cheap pricing will stop that from happening."
Hoke isn't the only customer who has complained about understaffing.
"I have been in the store several times and there is no presence of sales associates, only a cashier," said Gary Herndon, who said he was a Sears employee of 40 years and a long-time shopper. "If someone needed help with a tractor or mower, they would mostly likely walk out and go to Lowe's because the store was so inadequately staffed."
Steve Hall of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, recently tried to buy a weed eater at Sears and said, "What I thought would take 15 minutes max turned into a 30-plus-minute ordeal."
"I could not find an available cashier," he said. "When someone showed up after 10 minutes, he had problems scanning the UPC code. He also had problems entering my gift cards ... They didn't care whether or not I bought it. I will not go again."
Rick Arnold of Salt Lake City Utah also complained about the lack of available cashiers, as well as "outdated technology" and empty shelves.
"Sears was an icon. It was the place to go to buy just about anything," Arnold said. Now if you're "lucky enough to find what you are looking for and then want a speedy checkout process you are faced with long checkout lines."
Arnold thinks Sears won't last much longer.
"The end is near," he said. "The store I grew up with will be just a memory. So sad."
'They are committing suicide'
Some customers claimed that the quality of Sears' products has declined over the years.
"When I walked into a Sears store 10 to 15 years ago I knew automatically that I would pay more for whatever I bought, but I was confident that it would be top quality," said Tilmon Strickland of Ada, Oklahoma. "But today, I don't buy anything from Sears. The appliances are very cheaply made and won't last."
Charles Tucker of Exeter, New Hampshire, said he and his father were lifetime Sears customers. He said he still has some of his Sears Craftsman tools from the 1960s, but newer tools don't last.
When Sears sent him a new credit card in the mail recently, he said, "I just cut it up. Sears put a lot of small retailers out of business 100-plus years ago. Now they are committing suicide."
In response to the customer complaints described in this story, Sears spokesman Brian Hanover said the company is constantly getting feedback from customers and that most of it is positive.
"We constantly solicit feedback from our tens of millions of members and customers, as well as provide a variety of ways for them to provide it unsolicited and authentically back to us," he said. "The feedback you described is not reflective of the vast majority of comments and scores we receive and does not depict a typical member experience."
He said customer satisfaction scores have improved for both Sears and Kmart year-over-year.
"Regardless, we appreciate this additional feedback and know there are instances when we can do better," he said. "We will continue to enhance our operations and provide our members with superior service while they shop their way."
'Heaven help you if somebody needs a price check'
Employee incentives to get customers signed up for the company's Shop Your Way rewards program and credit cards have also been a headache for customers.
"They have so many questions that the checkout person needs to ask each and every customer to try and sway them into some sort of loyalty program," shopper Samuel J. Ely said. "They want my phone number, address, email, etc. Even the card swiper wants all kinds of things."
He compared checking out at Sears to a crossing point for the Berlin Wall.
"The annoyance really starts the moment you get in the long line and have to wait for the other customers in front of you to go through Checkpoint Charlie," he said. "Heaven help you if somebody needs a price check."
The loyalty program also makes things confusing when trying to get a price on something, Ely claimed.
After purchasing a house, Ely said he went to Sears to buy all new appliances. He ended up leaving without buying anything, however, because he said it was too confusing to get a bottom-line price on the appliances with all the possible combinations of discounts and loyalty rewards that a salesperson was pitching to him. Ely left the Sears store and went to Lowe's instead, and said he spent $8,000 on his appliances there.
"Ever since then, I avoid Kmart like the plague and I don't shop at Sears at all," he said.
Herndon, the 40-year Sears employee, agreed that the Shop Your Way program is "a misery for both employees and customers."
"When a customer came to get checked out they were presented with: Sign up for Shop Your Way rewards, get their email address, sell a maintenance agreement ... or a repair agreement on smaller items, try to get them to open a charge account, ask them to call in a customer-service survey — and by the time all of this was presented, many customers were angry and just wanted to pay for their purchase and get out."
'It was a ghost town'
Customers also complained that the stores are in total disarray.
"The Tinley Park, Illinois, Kmart is sad and depressing," said Gary Hayslett, of Tinley Park, Illinois.
During a recent trip, he said he saw two cashiers in the store and only one other shopper. He said Kmart stores have been using sheets and shower curtains for years to hide empty shelves and closed departments, and that many of the registers are broken and covered with cardboard.
He also noted that the Tinley Park store appears to be renting out part of its parking lot to a local car dealer for car storage.
"Kmart made a huge impression on me as a child. At one point I had hoped to work there," Hayslett said. "I watched as Kmart overtook Sears as the nation’s No. 1 retailer in sales. And I’ve watched with dismay as Kmart has fallen from grace to irrelevancy."
Shopper Jeff Magnet of Newton, Massachusetts, said he visited the Kmart store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a couple weeks ago and found a similarly depressing scene.
"It was like a haunted house," he said. "A real mess."
Another customer, Paul Martin, compared his local Sears — where he said he and his wife worked in the 1990s — to a "ghost town."
"Last time I was in the store where we once proudly worked, it was a ghost town," Martin said. "Very sad to see a once great retail giant at its end."
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