01/04/2012 02:00 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2012

What Sears Could Learn From This Business Owner

Here's a myth: a box of baking soda keeps a refrigerator smelling fresh. Maybe that's the case for some people, like New Yorkers who eat out most of the time or families that, well, clean their refrigerator. Our house has three teenage kids and two working parents. We don't have the time to clean our refrigerator. It really smells. That's because if the food doesn't get eaten; it usually just crawls away on its own. A pallet of baking soda wouldn't make much of a difference.

But we got used to the smell. It was the clanking that got our attention. The sound was ominous. It told us that, after ten years of loyal service, our fridge was reaching the end of its well lived life. So about a year ago, we decided it was time to replace it with a new fridge.

Sears sells refrigerators and home appliances. And a lot of other great stuff too. My house sits almost equidistant between two Sears stores too. Sears is certainly a trusted name brand. The chain's been around for a hundred years. But did we buy our new fridge from them?

Nope. We bought from Jake's Appliances instead. We never really considered Sears. Jake's (real store, different name) is just better. Whenever I see news that big retailers like Sears are closing down stores or that Best Buy is having a "tough" holiday season, I think about Jake. He runs a small retail business. And, although there's room for improvement, he's figured out how to do brick-and-mortar retail in an online world.

We bought from Jake's because we knew that Jake's sells fridges. We knew this because we get mailers from Jake's. We see ads for them on our local TV stations and local newspapers. I frequently find myself driving by Jake's too, because the store is located on a busy road near me. Oh, and we know others that have bought from Jake's and recommended them to us. Jake's has a buzz. Not a Kim Kardashian-breaking-up-with-Kris-Humphries buzz. But they're out there.

Sears has no buzz. I don't know anyone who shops there. And if they are shopping there, no one seems to be talking about them. If I look hard I bet I'll see that they're spending a lot on advertising. But that's the thing: I have to look hard. I don't seem to see their name in places that I'm at. I don't drive by their stores. I don't even drive by a billboard for their stores. I don't seem to see their name on websites I visit, newspapers I read or TV shows I watch. I don't think about them at all.

To get people into a retail store, the right kind of marketing and advertising is crucial. Sears needs to improve. I know this from years of experience and because I watch Mad Men.

Sears' marketing has failed to get my attention. Jake's, a store 1/1000th of their size has done a better job. They've mixed up local online, TV and print campaigns. They've generated word of mouth. Their marketing succeeded in making me to think of them first when it came time to buy a new refrigerator. Of course there was still more work to do. But they do a much better job than Sears.

I walked through a Sears at one of our largest shopping malls a few years ago, only to pass through it on the way to the Cinnabon which was located nearby. My recollection: it pretty much looked like when my mom dragged me there to buy a new TV watch Laverne & Shirley on Tuesday nights. Get it? Sears was the same, tired old place. Apparently, I'm not alone with this impression. Sear's CEO Lou D'Ambrosio, a smart and capable guy, is saying the same thing. That's because if anyone's learned anything from Apple and Starbucks it's that retail stores need to be cozy and attractive places to visit. If I wanted to visit a run-down, tired-looking, less-than-clean place with appliances I'd visit my own kitchen.

Jake's store, by comparison, was much smaller and also much nicer. They provided coffee to customers. They had sitting areas for old people and bored husbands. The lighting was warm There were many appliances on display. And many others to be perused via computer and catalog. It's kind of tough to make a room full of refrigerators and ovens appealing to a guy over the age of...well...ten. But Jake's was better than average. In 2012, retailers have to invest in making their space attractive. It's why we see strip malls replacing their old facades with a more modern look. It's why supermarkets spend millions to constantly reconfigure their stores so that we actually think that bottle of salad dressing is "fresh and natural" just because it's now positioned in the vegetables section (hint: it's still the same old salad dressing, just in a different place).

Jake's beats Sears on marketing and appearance. But that's not the biggest reason why we bought there. And it wasn't price. Everyone thinks it's price. But it's really not. Sure, the price of stuff has to be in the ballpark. But the biggest reason we bought from Jake's was because of service. And that's the magic pill for big retailers like Sears, Best Buy and others. Service in the store, in the home, and on the web is how retailers like Jake's survive and profit.

Unlike most retailers I visit where the average 14-year old salesperson knows more about her iPhone than the store's products, the sales guys at Jake's were older and more experienced. And way more mature than me. Because if I was stuck inside of a show room selling microwave ovens to impatient and know-it-all customers (like me) all day I would surely open my veins the next time I took a bath. But these guys seemed OK with the job. I'm thinking that Jake pays his guys a little more. Offers them a long term employment opportunity. Provides a little training. And Jake himself is always around, keeping an eye on things. The attention we received inside of Jake's was respectful and knowledgeable. We weren't a distraction from "Angry Birds." We weren't getting blank stares. Smart business owners invest in good people.

And they invest in technology. Because in 2012 a brick-and-mortar business just isn't enough. Consumers like me expect an online presence. Staples does a great job at this - I can order in their store or on their website and it's the same experience (along with next day delivery too). I get emails from them all the time with coupons. I can check my order history online. I get extra discounts based on my purchase history. I can read customer reviews of products on their site and do more research on larger purchases.

The fact is that Sears does this...really well. Way better than Jake's. Their website has good search engine optimization (type in "refrigerator" in Google and Sears' website appears at the top). heir site has all the stuff I mentioned above and it's easy to arrange for installation too. I've never purchased a $1,000 item from a website before. And I've never purchased from Sears' website. It seems like buying it on Sears' website is easy to do. But my question is: what about AFTER I click on the "buy" button?

Successful retailers get that technology is more important for AFTER the sales then before. If I'm spending a thousand bucks on something online I need to feel comfortable that shortly after I click on "buy" I'm hearing from a human being who personally takes responsibility Not someone in a call center near Fargo. And after the product is delivered good retailers will use technology to keep that customer in their community. If I were to purchase a new fridge from Sears do I continue to get emails from Sears a month later? A year later? Like...advice for getting the best use of my fridge? Or safety updates? Maybe a few accessories that might be of interest? Is this all being managed on their website? (hey Sears: Jake's isn't doing this either...but I bet he will).

I bought my fridge at Jake's because his marketing got my attention, his store was inviting, his salesperson spent more time with me than with his iPhone, and of course his pricing was competitive. I would do the same at Sears if they could promise the same. And I would keep coming back to them if their technology was used in a way to keep me up to date, informed and interested in their other products and services. Getting rid of the odor from my son's two-week old pizza would help too.

This is how small brick-and-mortar retailers can succeed in an online world. And the big guys too.

Another version of this post appears on The Philly Post.