An Alternative To Throwaway Culture

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Much has been said about Sears and what seem like existential questions about the future of its retail stores, but what if it were quietly disrupting the very nature of consumer relationships with technology products?

The company has launched a Seattle office, and recruited retail tech execs to help it get a handle on the data it has amassed from the 40,000+ daily service queries its Home Services group collects on washing machines, refrigerators, and other appliances. It turns out that the industry average is that about 1 out of every 4 customers don’t get their appliance woes fixed on the first visit. 

“Each truck carries about 400 parts, yet those annual service calls require something like 168,000 different parts,” explained Arun Arora, the group’s president.

“We’d have to have our 7,000 certified technicians driving semis around to anticipate them.”

Instead, Arora and his team, co-led by Heidi Robinson, VP, Digital Services, and Ian Clarkson, Head of Product and Technology, are repurposing the stats the company collects, and building a system to help customers better identify their tech issues, while applying machine learning to suss out the most likely solution requirements. 

Putting the right parts on the right trucks (i.e. routing them with the technicians best suited to solve particular issues) should mean higher success rates, which should have impacts on costs (programmatic tasking is cheaper) while identifying opportunities to up-sell customers (an accurate estimate of likely service issues means a better handle on repair vs. replace decisions).

“We’ve built a continuous learning platform, so every service order is analyzed and distilled to probable causes, and then we can systematically address them,” explained Clarkson.

“Our goal is to make the engagement utterly transparent, and democratize it for every customer,” added Robinson. 

Even incremental improvements in its service success rate should have immense financial benefits for the company. Better yet, it could allow Sears customers to redefine their product purchases as the start of an ongoing service relationship that could include repair and/or replacement.

But do you realize what happens when the rest of the world realizes that getting stuff fixed isn’t a hassle anymore?

Just think about the ways tech products are designed, with the assumption that we’ll choose to trash them when they have a glitch, whether circumstantial, or the outcome of purposeful obsolescence (non-replaceable batteries or abandoned OS, anyone?). It’s often impossible these days to determine where something gets fixed, let alone how.

It’s not like consumers were always so enamored with the idea of trashing devices in accord with the wishes of product manufacturers. They like to extract the most value out of the things they’ve bought, whether expensive appliances, or cheaper devices like, say, smartphones. 

The Home Services program is quietly and systematically improving the company’s relationships with millions of its consumers. If it’s successful at changing how they own appliances, it will likely change the when and why they buy them, too.

This could influence the design and development strategies of the appliance brands it sells, and may start to change what consumers expect from the othertech devices in their lives…at which point Sears could apply its proprietary platform to service those gizmos, or to entirely unrelated product categories. It could change what levels of durability and effective life consumers demand from device manufacturers, at a minimum.

“This business has been around for over 50 years, had no disruption in it, and nobody has taken bold move to take digital experiences to customers,” said Arora of the company’s service offering.