Target, Sears and the Trouble with Home Automation at Retail – CEPro

Retail giants Target and Sears have both built impressive home automation showcases in San Francisco-area stores to demonstrate and sell smart-home products.

I recently toured the Sears “experience center” in San Bruno, Calif. and was inspired the residential vignettes, the breadth of Internet of Things (IoT) products, and the enthusiasm of the sales associate who served us.

There’s only one problem: Sears is unlikely to sell a whole lot of home automation systems there because the selections are too overwhelming for a category that is so confusing. But we’ll get to that. (Or just skip ahead to the verdict.)

Sears’ Best of Intentions

It seems every major brick-and-mortar retailer has gotten into the IoT business in the past year or two, usually with flagship home automation launch partners – Home Depot (Revolv and Wink), Best Buy (Peq), Staples (Connect), Lowe’s (Iris) and to a sad degree Walmart.

Amazon established its online home automation shop in 2013, which brings us to the Sears smart-home initiative: The former home automation category manager for Amazon, Ryan Ciovacco, is now president of Sears Consumer Electronics & Connected Living.

Speaking with CE Pro last month, Ciovacco says he learned from Amazon that “these products are really something you have to experience to understand all of the possibilities.”

Some smart devices like motion-sensor lights may be intuitive, he says, but “the power is really the interoperability with other products. It’s very difficult to show online.”

But customers at the Sears store experience technology first hand, with the opportunity to operate devices from nearby tablets and learn about multiple use cases from trained sales associates.

“When you go into our store, you see a working garage door. You see customers talking to [sales team] members, you see people watching it, you see the aha moment.”

Larry, Our Helpful Sears Associate

That aha moment comes, for example, when the customer realizes they no longer have to sit up at night wondering if they closed the garage door. That very scenario was relayed to us by our charming sales associate Larry.

He demonstrated with equal enthusiasm the Ring video doorbell, correctly noting that it worked over Wi-Fi and does not integrate with other devices. As long as we were at the “front door,” Larry pointed out the Awox Bluetooth smart bulb (Wi-Fi version also available) with built-in speaker, explaining how cool it was that the LED light show could sync with the music being played.

He had a blast showing us the 94Fifty smart basketball that challenges ball-handlers and helps improve their game.

Enough with the fun and games, though.

We – my techy co-shopper and I – started tossing Larry some hard balls and he acquitted himself nicely on most occasions. He knew what Z-Wave and ZigBee were, and deftly explained mesh networking. He knew that Belkin Wemo uses Wi-Fi and that Insteon uses its own proprietary home automation protocol.

Moving over to the home automation section, he pushed Wink hard. It’s the best home automation system. It can do anything. With some devices you don’t even need the hub.

He had a little difficulty justifying why the Wink hub is only $50 and the in-wall Relay device is $300, but he gave it his best. (Incidentally, Sears does not sell the Wink hub online at this time, only the Relay.)

He didn’t know about the current woes facing Wink and its parent organization Quirky. Then again, it was rude of me to ask.

Asked how he knew so much about Wink and the other smart devices in the showcase home, Larry said he had no prior experience in home technology but he and the other associates went through two weeks of intensive training, with vendors demonstrating products and Sears execs explaining how to sell the solutions.

Representatives from Wink spent lots of time with Larry and his impressionable colleagues, he said. Competitor Vera, on the other hand, did not. For that reason, I’m sure, Larry explained that Vera was not as capable as Wink, which is quite the contrary.

The Insteon hub, he said, was fine but you had to use Insteon’s own devices so you couldn’t, for instance, use it with a $15 GE ZigBee bulb. Correct! (Although the hub does support some third-party IP devices via the cloud.)

Larry was great – zealous, knowledgeable and gracious. I gave him high marks on the customer-satisfaction survey.

The experience was especially pleasant because there were no hard sales tactics. On the other hand, there were no hard sales tactics. We left empty-handed, except for a $5 Sears gift certificate that we could use anywhere in the store.

The Sears Advantage

Sears is in a relatively unique position in that it sells pretty much everything on the planet. All of the products in the Connected Solutions shop are from Sears, from the furniture to the windows to the Craftsman-branded garage door.

Likewise, Sears can deliver, install and service pretty much everything it sells, which is a “great advantage,” for the Connected Solutions business, says Ciovacco.

PHOTOS: Sears Connected Solutions Flagship Experience Center

For example, when installing new energy-efficient windows, a technician might suggest a smart thermostat to take energy savings even further.

On the flip side, associates in the experience center pitching smart thermostats can mention the energy-efficient windows in the model home, “both of which we sell,” says Ciovacco, “both of which we install.”

Sears Home Services is the “largest home services network,” he explains. The company visits 8 million homes and takes 13 million customer-support calls per year.

While some other big-box retailers sell, install and support a wide range of products, none has the breadth of Sears, which is #1 in major appliances and #1 in fitness, among other categories.

“Home improvement stores can sell you thermostats and cameras, but not speakers, headphones and tablets,” Ciovacco says. “Entertainment retailers – they’re not going to be able to put in energy-efficient windows or a treadmill.”

NEXT PAGE: Why Sears will struggle; Target Open House; Install prices for Sears Connected Solutions; History of home automation at retail

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