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Viral Photos Put Sears On The Defensive

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Sears desperately wants you to know that its stores are not sloppy, neglected or dying.

The department store went on the defensive on Saturday after a story on TheStreet.com showed photos of a Sears store with displays in shambles, dirty clothes, misplaced items and empty shelves. Under the headline "More Pathetic Pictures From A Dying Sears, JCP," columnist Rocco Pendola called the company out for its shabby look.

The photos came courtesy of retail analyst Brian Sozzi, chief executive of Belus Capital Advisors. Sozzi toured a mix of Sears and Kmart stores in New York and New Jersey, serving up several sad images. He has documented similar neglect at J.C. Penney and Walmart stores around the U.S.

Unexpectedly, Sears Vice President of Corporate Communications Chris Brathwaite bypassed formal channels and came to his company's defense on Twitter on Saturday, arguing that select photos aren't representative of Sears' overall operations in its stores, which number nearly 2,000.

"You can go into any retailer on any given day and find issues. I'm just trying to infuse some balance into your reporting." Brathwaite tweeted at TheStreet's Pendola. He also jabbed at Sozzi, tweeting that the analyst "uses cheap shots to increase his Klout score." As more people got involved in the very public argument, Brathwaite added, "We can't let the shorts and others with an agenda simply take uncontested shots at us."

"[The response from Sears is] perplexing and very disheartening, but it's also very telling," said Sozzi in an interview with The Huffington Post. "When a company responds in this manner, they have no legs to stand on. They're trying to attack somebody who's presenting factual data."

Sears Holdings, which operates Kmart along with its namesake stores, continues to struggle as it attempts to deal with operating losses and declining sales. The retailer is counting on the success of its "Shop Your Way" loyalty program to help turn things around as it continues to jettison pieces of its business, such as the spinoff of clothing label Lands' End in December.

Brathwaite told HuffPost he has no problems with the photos themselves, noting that Sears actually encourages workers and customers to post pictures of stores. He also acknowledged that some stores could use some work.

But, he said, his problem is with the overwhelmingly negative rhetoric surrounding Sears. In the past month, Sears has been declared "dying" and "at the end of its rope."

"I can't just let these things go unchallenged," said Brathwaite. "Balance dictates that our voice needs to be in the discussion."

Pendola said that the Sears executive is "caught up in an impossible mess," and is simply doing his job to defend his organization. The pictures are an illustration of the issues facing the entire physical retail industry as companies try to adapt to the rise of Internet shopping, he said.

"The response from Sears just underscores my overarching theme -- brick-and-mortar hasn't completely acknowledged their failures and the all-out ass whipping they received at the hands of Amazon.com," said Pendola.

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