Sears in a War of Words With the WSJ Over Portrayal of its Vendor Relationships

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Sears

This spring, Sears Holdings CEO and Chairman Eddie Lampert lashed out at the media, railing against what he saw as an unfair barrage of negative press targeting the retailer.

Well, add The Wall Street Journal to the list of publications that the retailer says is dishing up fake news.

Yesterday the company issued a response through its blog to a piece published on Tuesday entitled “Inside the Decline of Sears, the Amazon of the 20th Century.” In it, the article outlines a pattern of Sears alienating its suppliers, stripping down its workforce and retail fleet, and selling off assets as sales at Sears and Kmart have plummeted in recent years.

It’s the characterization of its relationship with vendors, in particular, that has caught the retailer’s ire though.

Sears’ response? There’s nothing to see here.

“We continue to have strong relationships with over 50,000 vendors and suppliers,” the Sears post stated. “Any changes to our agreements over the years have been part of the normal discussions between retailers and vendors.”

This public spat comes on the heels of the retailer receiving yet another loan from Lampert’s ESL Investments, which has been bankrolling the company for years. The fund lent the retailer $100 million early last month with an option to provide another $100 million before Dec. 1. The retailer reportedly tapped into that second sum on Oct. 18 for $40 million and then maxed out the total a week later with a $60 million loan.

The Journal story stated that Whirlpool had been pulling back from the ailing retailer to reduce exposure—already, the paper said, Sears had dropped from a fifth of the appliance company’s revenue to 3 percent of sales.

In its rebuttal Sears painted the end of the agreement between the two companies as simply one over the product price—which the Journal article mentioned as a contributing factor as Whirlpool sought to its reduce exposure.

[Read about how suppliers are opting to handle distressed retailers: Suppliers’ Dilemma: Partner With Distressed Retailers Or Go Into Battle?]

Characterized as a move to reduce risk, the paper outlined how LG negotiated new terms with Sears in 2015, which gave the retail a discount if it paid for some goods upfront. At issue for Sears is the insinuation that the new deal was anything but normal, given, it said, that suppliers are known to give incentives to retailers that pay early. Further, Sears said LG’s quote praising the companies’ ongoing relationship was nixed from the reporting.

Sears’ disputed points like that over the retailer’s relationship with Levi Strauss ultimately seem to boil down to clarifications rather than corrections. In the case of the jeans maker, the news item stated it had stopped shipping the company women’s jeans. At this Sears cried foul, highlighting the fact that it stopped selling the women’s product a few years ago and it still carries men’s and kids’ jeans from the brand and “continue[s] to have a great relationship with Levi’s.”

Similarly, the Journal story said MGA Entertainment had reduced shipments of its hot L.O.L. Surprise! toy, while Sears stated that the company is still shipping the product and will ship additional quantities.

While the explanation was no doubt meant to bolster Sears’ perception, MGA’s chief executive strikes a less than friendly tone in the article when describing how his company has cut Sears’ credit and shortened payment terms. Ultimately, he said, “If they pay one day late, we will cut them off.”

The retailer’s blog post didn’t expressly take issue with the portrayal of Lampert’s tough stance with suppliers over price, the description of the stores as “creepy” by one shopper or the ways in which the insurance industry has pulled back from vendors shipping Sears.

Basically, Sears—in both the blog post and a statement from the company’s spokesperson—complained that the press should stop harping on the negative and allow the company to continue on its path to trim unprofitable stores, promote its ShopYourWay membership program, negotiate with vendors and reduce costs—all of which must be working, it said, given that despite the headlines, “we are still here.”

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