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Sears Needs to Work on Customer Care

Robert Weinstein

This story has been updated with Sears' response

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Amazon and Wal-Mart receive a lot of heat from the retail community for taking away market share with low prices. But sometimes companies have themselves to blame for shrinking revenue and profits.

As long as Amazon investors don't mind substituting profits, dividends and a return on investment for revenue growth, Amazon will continue to squeeze margins on others. Wal-Mart enjoys the greatest buying power of any retailer and has the retail process down to an exact science.

Take a couple of experiences I recently encountered with Sears , Amazon and Wal-Mart.

I won't wake up at 4 a.m. or whatever time people rise to go shopping on "Black Friday," but I am willing to buy products late at night online because I'm usually awake anyway. Sears.com is one of the websites I attempted to shop at because I wanted to buy a new Canon digital camera.

I ordered the camera, and selected that I wanted to pick it up at the store. My goal wasn't to give the camera as a gift but rather to use it during the holiday season. Sears.com showed it was in stock, and I could pick it up. The site, however, would not let me add the additional items that made the camera a fantastic deal (low-cost telephoto lens and memory card). I tried many ways to incorporate the extras at the package pricing, but it was a no-go.

In fairness to Sears, I wasn't all that surprised to have online ordering issues. I do most of my holiday shopping online, and on Black Thursday night/Friday, many websites were obviously straining under heavy loads. I drove to Sears with a printout of my order and advertisement in hand to show that I tried to receive the package price but wasn't able to.

The salesman didn't have the authority to make the pricing adjustments, but called over a manager who listened to my situation and price-adjusted the extra lens and memory card without hassle. I finished and walked to the product pickup to receive the camera. It was at that point I was advised that they didn't have the camera in stock. A day or two later, I received an email from Sears that the order was canceled because it was not in stock. The Canon Ti3 is a regularly stocked item, so I'm not sure why my order was canceled instead of simply delayed.

This week, Sears held its quarterly "Friends and Family" sale. If you're a member of the "Sears points club" and are willing to receive emails from Sears, they will record your sales, and you earn points to buy more products at Sears.

This weekend I tried to order a grill on sale. The grill-description page on Sears.com displays the grill and the sale price. However, when I tried to place the grill into the basket, it displayed the non-sales price.

After adding the above grill to the cart, Sears.com displayed the following page:

After ascertaining if I was clicking the right button or not, I noticed and clicked on a customer service link. To my surprise, Sears offers 24/7 customer service chat. I took the above screen shots to document what I was trying to buy and the displayed price for the customer service person.

The service agent confirmed the product and the price and stated: I see that the pricing error is a website error. I will place the order for $474.99 and refund $74 after placing the order." A refunded amount of $75 was correct, but I let it go and didn't say anything. Then my fun with customer service chat begins. Here is the conversation in part.

Neal: I have reviewed your item at the checkout page and I am glad to inform that you have an option to purchase 'Sears Master Protection Agreement' on your appliance for a period of 5 years or 3 years at a very competitive price and with great benefits.
Neal: Let me explain that for you.
Neal: The protection agreement will give you unmatched service around 24 hours and 7 days a week, if you need any repair on the appliance within the covered period of time.
Neal: Plus, you will have annual tune up service at your convenient time; this will definitely prolong the life of the appliance.
Neal: In addition to this, you can get the item replaced if there are more than 4 repairs in a year.
Neal: Our 5-Year In-Home Repair Protection Agreement (best value) adds $149.99.

Neal: Our 3-Year In-Home Repair Protection Agreement adds $99.99.
Neal: Our 2-Year In-Home Repair Protection Agreement add $59.99.
Neal: Which one shall I add to the cart, Robert?
Robert Weinstein: no thanks, after 5 years I will be replacing it anyway
Neal: Robert, I would suggest you to add the 2 year warranty for just $59.99 as you are getting $74 as a refund for this gas grill.
Robert Weinstein: well, i don't think of it as a refund, because the price was 399 and at 474 I wasn't going to buy it
Neal: I do understand your concern, Robert. I am providing the refund as it is an one time exception. The sale on this grill has already ended.
Neal: Shall I add the Protection Agreement?

After the website error frustration, I then had the pleasure of repeating myself for the third time that I didn't want an extended warranty. Neal relented and let me have the grill without an extended warranty.

And what does a "one time exception" mean to Sears? If its website doesn't honor a legitimate sales price in the future, I shouldn't bother contacting customer service because I already used up my "one-time exception" to receive the correct price?

Unfortunately, Neal and Sears weren't finished with me. Even though Sears offers free shipping, Neal tried to create a delivery date of Saturday for an extra $10. Also, he told me I can't use the points I earned from previous purchases at Sears on this order. My order is completed, and I have (mostly) the sales price, and after being advised that it will take two weeks before I receive the grill (I live about four miles from Sears), I changed the order to in-store pickup.

OK, so we've all had our Neals to deal with, and even after spending over an hour ordering a grill that could be ordered with free two-day delivery at Amazon (at a higher price), but wasn't available at Wal-Mart or Sam's Club, I drove to Sears the next day to pick up the grill.

After arriving at Sears, I was told the grill was in stock, but I also noticed another grill on sale that was a little more money but included features that made it worthwhile. I asked Paul Sikkema, the grill salesman, if it was a problem refunding the online order so I could buy a different one. Sikkema said it wouldn't be a problem.

I don't know Sikkema outside of a few purchases I made at Sears, but he's one of the best salespeople Sears employs. He's honest, knows the answers and doesn't try to force anything you don't want to buy. Sikkema did demonstrate the features of the next step up, but not in a pushy way; rather, he showed the other grill in a way to inform and make sure the unit we walked out with was a good fit.

At the same time I'm there looking at the grills, I get an email from Sears informing me that the grill I am 2 feet away from is now out of stock. My first reaction was to laugh and shake my head, but my second was to create a mental note not to order from Sears online again and to check the stock price.

Sears' error saved me the task of canceling the original order. I didn't ask, but I do wonder what the store would have done had I still wanted the original order that was actually in stock.

SHLD Revenue TTM data by YCharts

The reason I didn't ask is the checkout at Sears took about an hour. It wasn't Sikkema's fault from what I could tell, but Sears has a long way to go before it is able to play at the same level as Amazon and Wal-Mart.

SHLD Operating Income TTM data by YCharts
I bought other outdoor items at Sam's Club and Amazon over the weekend. The grill from Sears will be the last item to arrive.

A spokesperson for Sears emailed the following response:

"We're working hard to put our Members first and earn a reputation for great service. When you're a company our size and on the cutting edge of integrated retail, occasionally a customer experience under-delivers. We're sorry your experience fell short of expectations and we've discussed the specific training issues related to your case with the associates involved so we can learn and do better next time. In fact, storewide and at the individual associate level we're using technology and training to encourage and embrace feedback to improve accountability. Members like yourself are the future of our company and we are committed to serve them well every day, in every transaction, no matter how they choose to shop with us."

At the time of publication, the author did not have any positions in stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.