I came across a Wall Street Journal article about the rise and fall of Sears this weekend. Titled How Sears Lost the American Shopper, the article includes interviews with a bunch of different people who once served as CEOs of the company and discussed the decisions and missteps that led to the company’s downfall.
To be honest, I’m fascinated by the whole Sears story. I’m not a big investor or anything so I’m not interested in the business side of things. But I enjoy seeing how innovation and time impacts different industries and how those industries react to stay current. Or don’t.
Looking at the state of the company now, it’s hard to believe that Sears was once the Amazon of its day. With the introduction of catalogs and credit, the company globalized sales at time when most people shopped locally. Through their catalogs, the company sold houses, firearms, appliances, and clothing to people across the world. But times changed and shoppers became more mobile. And as stores like Target and Walmart grew and websites like Amazon emerged, Sears went into a downward spiral.
Buried in the article was a quote from Lynn Walsh. Walsh served in different executive positions within Sears from 1992 through 2017 and had a front row seat for Sears downfall. Recalling the beginning of the end for the company, Walsh remarked,
“There was a new policy where in every conference room, one of the chairs had this cloth label on it that said, ‘The Customer.’ The point was that in every conversation you needed to be aware of what does the customer want.”
I have to admit that my first reaction to that quote was, “Wow, that’s a great practice.” The empty chair makes you aware that there’s another perspective to consider in your decision making. Initially, I thought that the empty chair would be a great thing to consider when we’re planning for students. I could almost visualize faculty and administrators having meetings where an empty chair was dedicated for “The Student” so we could make more student-centered decisions. But then I began to think differently.
The challenge with this practice, however, is the same one that Sears faced. To consider “The Student” or “The Customer,” you have to really know them and recognize that their needs are constantly changing. Sure, Sears was trying to consider “The Customer” as they planned, but their customer profile (and needs) changed significantly over the years. The customer they served in the early days of its business weren’t the same ones they needed to consider later in its history. When their fall started to happen, they were planning for a customer that almost didn’t exist anymore.
And that’s really how this empty chair metaphor breaks down in education, too. To some faculty and administrators, that empty chair may represent a student profile that just doesn’t exist on many campuses anymore. I’m reminded of the National Educational Technology Plan released by the Office of Educational Technology in 2016. Titled Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education, the report focused on the challenges and opportunities that colleges and universities face. The document started with an overview of the “new normal” students currently enrolled in higher education. Drawing on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the report identified that 74% of undergraduate students have at least on “nontraditional characteristic.” Maybe they have transfer from another institution (66%). Or maybe they work a part-time or full-time job (62%). They may also have a dependent (26%) or be a first-generation college student (63%). Factor in those students who are attending part time (43%) and those who are enrolled in two-year colleges (35%) and you can see that the “nontraditional” umbrella covers a great number of our undergraduate students.
That’s the real problem with the empty chair metaphor for collegiate students. I’m sure many faculty would envision “The Student” as being a full-time college student who didn’t work, didn’t have dependents and wasn’t first generation. And the data shows clearly shows that that student isn’t “The Student” anymore. And much like Sears, planning for a student who almost doesn’t exist anymore could lead to our downfall.