Anatomy of a perfect transaction

A 114-year-old store displays how the marriage between the Web and brick-and-mortar stores should work

So you may recall my post on my foray into farming. I now have ducks and geese in addition to the chickens, but the pigs have become yummy, yummy bacon -- in fact, lots of yummy bacon, pork chops, ribs, roasts, and everything else you might expect. About 600 pounds of pork now completely fills my chest freezer. I won't have to worry about what's for dinner for quite some time.

Suffice it to say, I enjoy the pigs much more on my plate than in the back 40, but this presented another problem -- a tasty experience at a friend's cabin made me realize that I needed a smoker to properly prepare all this wonderful meat. I did some research, headed out to a few local places, and weighed my options. The smoker I actually wanted was at Sears, but at $179, it was more than I wanted to spend. A few hours after visiting the store, I checked the Sears.com Web site and found the same smoker, which was apparently on a Web-only sale for $159. Now we're talking. I then added some hickory chips and a cover to my order, and received another $15 off the total order, seemingly out of nowhere. Now we're definitely talking. I could taste the smoked ribs already.

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But what's this? At checkout, I could use PayPal to pay? Color me surprised. I elected to pick up all the items locally rather than ship them, and the site verified that everything was in stock. I was also asked if I wanted to receive a text message when my order was ready to pick up. I filled in that info, and submitted the order at 5:25 p.m.

Fifteen minutes later, my phone chirped, and the text message was from Sears, saying my order was ready. I hopped in my truck, headed down to the store, and used a touchscreen order pickup system. Within about two minutes, a fellow wheeled out my new smoker and accessories, and loaded it into my truck. I checked the time -- it was just shy of 6 p.m.

It took about an hour to build the smoker, and just after 7 p.m., I was all done. That's about 90 minutes from hitting the buy button -- quite impressive by any standard. It was a bit late to fire up the smoker that night, but the next night was full of smoked rib goodness. I'm suddenly quite interested in trying my hand at homemade rubs, mops, and sauces. After all, I have plenty of meat to experiment with.

I suppose that I'd expect the Web portion of this transaction to be this smooth from a modern retailer like Amazon.com, and perhaps I'd even expect the brick-and-mortar experience from a long-term store operator like Sears, but the highly successful marriage of the two was refreshing, to say the least.

If brick-and-mortar stores have any advantage over Web-only retailers, this is it: low sales overhead thanks to the Web site, little involvement of in-store salespeople, and instant gratification for the customer. However, they have to do the Web part right; it can't just be a modern-day catalog. It also needs to provide this level of service. There's no way that Amazon can compete with this.

Bringing together these two worlds isn't new. Stores have had the online-order, in-store pickup concept going for a long time now, but this is the first time where it's actually worked for me. I've done the same basic thing with Circuit City, only to arrive at the store and discover that they had no idea what I was talking about, it wasn't in stock, or similar issues. Maybe that's a bad example, since Circuit City didn't find its way to bankruptcy on the wings of stellar customer service, but the point stands -- it's taken 15 years, but traditional retailers are really getting the idea now. I find this particularly interesting for Sears, since it started as just a catalog and introduced actual stores 30 years later.

I have absolutely no business involvement with Sears and no other motive for writing about this experience other than I was impressed with the way they've integrated new media into a century-old business. So good job, Sears. Keep it up.

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