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Unlikely Partnership Highlights Desperation

A month ago, Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) jolted the grocery industry by purchasing Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFM). Last week, the consumer behemoth fired another salvo. This time, it reached a deal with Sears Holdings (NYSE: SHLD) to start selling Kenmore appliances on its website. Under the deal, Amazon will own the inventory but Sears will ship the products to customers.

The news sent the shares of other appliance sellers, such as Whirlpool (NYSE: WHR), Home Depot (NYSE: HD), Lowe’s Companies (NYSE: LOW), tumbling on anticipation that these companies are now in Amazon’s crosshairs. Amazon has disrupted any industry that it has set its sights on, and via the deal it now more deeply penetrates into the home appliance space, positioning itself as a more direct competitor to Whirlpool et al.

Meanwhile, Sears shares opened trading 20 percent higher on July 20 in immediate reaction because having a presence on Amazon places Kenmore products in the largest sales platform possible, likely leading to greater sales.

The deal marks the first time that Sears will sell anything directly on Amazon and it likewise marks the first time that Amazon will directly offer any major appliance brands on its website. With clear ambitions of pushing deeper into home appliances and furniture, Amazon will not stop at Kenmore. Expect more moves to come.

In an ironic twist, for a lifeline Sears turned to the very same company partially responsible for its current predicament. Having held the Kenmore products tight to the chest—in the U.S., most Kenmore products were only available in Sears stores—up until last week despite years of declining sales, Sears would not have taken this extraordinary step if it wasn’t desperate.

 

Under CEO Eddie Lambert, Sears is in survival mode. Years of declining foot traffic and same-store sales have forced closures of about 1,000 stores since 2009. The company has raised cash to stay alive by selling its real estate and lately, its iconic brands.

Six months ago, it sold its Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker (NYSE: SWK) for $900 million, including future royalties. Other iconic Sears exclusive offerings, the aforementioned Kenmore and DieHard brands, are also available for sale.

According to a market research firm, in the twelve-month period ended March, Sears’ share of the U.S. major-appliances market has fallen to 22 percent. Four years ago, that share was 30 percent. More specifically for Kenmore products, the share has declined to 10.3 percent from 16.7 percent over that same period.

While having a presence on Amazon will likely give Kenmore products a bump in sales. The improvement probably won’t be enough to make a significant difference for Sears. There’s also danger here that with Kenmore products available online through Amazon, there is one less reason to visit Sears stores. Thus, the deal could cannibalize some of Sear’s traditional business.

On the other hand, assuming selling Kenmore on Amazon reverses the brand’s declining sales, it would make Kenmore more attractive to prospective buyers, and may enable Sears to sell it at a better price to raise capital. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that Sears chose this deal in order to better position Kenmore for a sale.

We are not optimistic about Sears’ outlook, Amazon partnership or no partnership. It’s telling that after the initial reaction, SHLD has quickly given back most of its gains. Shares closed trading on Friday at $8.83, not even 2 percent higher than its July 19 close.

Stay away.


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