Sears: is the neighborhood store toast?

May 3, 2009

My friend Grady walked into the office giggling the other day. “I have to tell you,” he said, “I tried cleaning my gas grill like you said. And it burned up.”

534-flame-broiledSee, I’d read in a recent Cooks Illustrated that a good way to burn up the excess grease in the grill, to clean the grate and prep it for salmon, was to put a layer of tinfoil over the grate, crank up the heat and wait 10 to 15 minutes. Worked for me. So I bragged to Grady about it. Then he tried it. “Flames were shooting out the front of it. Melted my knobs,” he said. Just as I prepared to offer my deepest condolences, to even offer to help replace it, Grady giggled again. “It wasn’t your fault. The whole pipe was rotted. So I went to Sears online, ordered all the parts, new burners, new knobs, everything, put it all together, cost less than $40.”

So two lessons. Yes, it’s OK to clean some gas grills by superheating them. And two? Anybody can order replacement parts for Kenmore and Craftsman stuff. Which is awesome, Rather than replace the entire grill — as Grady might have had to do with an off-brand — he simply replaced a few parts that were easily ordered. That’s awesome.

Just don’t try going to your neighborhood Sears store and expecting to get even close to the knowledge or service a simple google search would net. Thinking I’d support my local retailer and try to keep a few jobs local — unemployment in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon is pushing 15 percent — I tooled on down to the nearest Sears in search of a garage door opener remote control. “If I buy the wrong one,” I thought, “I can just bring it back.” Remembering Grady’s words, I scribbled down my model number and even took my user manual into the store with me.

I found a display of replacement remotes and a bevy of hungover-lookin’ sales dudes, with little more than bad goatees and worse stories about the night before. They huddled around the sales desk so caught up in bragging about rolling in late unnoticed, they hardly noticed me.  All the replacement remotes were $39.99, all had different specs, some for openers with green buttons, some for black buttons, some for blue… Mine? It has a red button. No worries. I’ve got the model number, I thought. Finally one of the badly bearded sales dudes wandered over. After briefly glancing at the cover of the manual that remained in my hand, he pointed at one. “If I had to guess, I’d say that one would work.”

“I can guess on the Internet. Can we look up my model number, maybe order a part?” I asked.

He shook his head. “That department doesn’t open for a couple more hours,” he said.

I grumbled something about how he needed to know his product and headed for the door. On my way out, I noticed an 800-number on the back of my manual. I dialed it while still in the parking lot. Before reaching my car, I’d given the Sears phone rep my part number, he identified the replacement, promised it would work, and finalized my shipping address — all in less time than it took to talk with the hungover doofus inside. Intelligent conversation aside, the remote I ordered also cost $26 with shipping, more than 30 percent less than any comparable in-store product. There are plenty of smart people around town who’d love a job. Too bad hungover sales reps aren’t as easy to replace as grill parts.