Control & Automation

Target, Sears and the Trouble with Home Automation at Retail

Target and Sears build impressive showcases for home automation, but the breadth of offerings and confusion around ‘smart home hubs’ expose inherent flaws of retail IoT channel.


Target, Sears and the Trouble with Home Automation at Retail
Sears Connected Solutions: flagship home automation experience center in San Bruno, Calif.

Photos & Slideshow

Julie Jacobson · August 11, 2015

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 marveled at 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.

The thing about the Sears showcase home is that it’s just too overwhelming. There ends up being too many choices. A couple in the market for smart-home stuff likely will walk away to ‘think it over’ rather than buy something on the spot.

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.”

Why Sears Will Struggle with Home Automation

In theory, Sears’ connected-home strategy should be a winner – a real showcase home staffed with knowledgeable associates and stocked with a huge range of products; obvious synergies across all Sears departments; and an established machine for home delivery, installation and tech support.

But it simply won’t work as promised.

For starters, you need only to look at the sad history of home automation at retail. No big-box store has succeeded in its Sears-like ambitions – even Sears itself, which has tried on many occasions to be the smart-home superstore for consumers and home builders … to no avail. The Sears Connected Home initiative with Home Director in 2002, and efforts to offer security through ADT, fell flat.

Not to single out Sears.

Best Buy’s ConnectedLife.Home effort in 2006 was a fiasco, and today the retailer can’t seem to turn Geek Squad into a universal smart-home installation team. It doesn’t help that Best Buy has been woefully behind in even offering connected devices.

Remember Circuit City with its short-lived firedog crew? How about CompUSA’s Digital Living Center and its ambitious plans to install home technology for production builders?

More recently, in 2013 Lowe’s launched Iris, a home automation hub with peripherals. While Lowe’s has had some success selling the hub and peripherals, its unrealistic dream of populating every department with “Works with Lowe’s” product and signage has not been realized.

PHOTOS: Sears Connected Solutions Flagship Experience Center

Home Depot, which also has tried several times in the past decade to dominate the connected home (by itself and with ADT), hasn’t come close. Its most recent effort, centered first on Revolv (now defunct) and then on Wink (nearly defunct), has become a showcase of sparse end caps, with the promised hands-on workshops and installation services not quite materializing.

The joke seems to be on all of these retailers. Their displays may indeed inspire consumers to buy home automation products … but probably online at Ciovacco’s alma mater Amazon.com.

The thing about the Sears showcase is that it’s just too overwhelming. There are smart basketballs, toy robots, watches, media streaming devices, remote controls, cameras, doorbells, sensors, light bulbs and a bunch of boxes with curious home automation hubs. And there are multiple brands and models for nearly every category.

There ends up being too many choices. A couple in the market for smart-home stuff likely will walk away to “think it over” rather than buy something on the spot.

As a real shopper, I probably would have walked away with a $200 Ring doorbell, but then … do I need a hub with that? How do I install it? Does it work with the Schlage doorbell on the front door? Too many questions. Too tired to think about it.

Despite the fact that “the power is really the interoperability,” as Ciovacco says, perhaps a more profitable approach to the smart home would be to demonstrate and sell just a handful of compelling devices, not a complete home automation system.

Alternatively, have a simple way to be inspired by the Sears demo and then schedule an in-home consultation from there.

A few other challenges for Sears

  • There is no option for professional security monitoring, even though security consistently ranks as the top concern for smart-home shoppers.
  • Where are the motorized shades? They are high margin and a killer smart-home app. Put a Lutron Serena DIY kiosk in there, and you’re golden.
  • Installation services are available, but it should be more obvious in the store. Furthermore, it’s nowhere to be seen on the Website. Then again, Sears is still “building out our online experience,” Ciovacco says.
  • The offerings in the experience center don’t jibe with what’s online at the Sears Connected Solutions site. The Wink hub, Vera products, even the smart basketball couldn’t be found. (Again, work in progress.)
  • Sears only has the one flagship experience center near Silicon Valley, which is the right place for it. But the other 200 stores with Connected Solutions departments will feature a mostly-static 48-foot display. We have seen from all retail efforts so far (listed below) that these displays eventually fail to be restocked or refreshed, and that trained home technology “specialists” fade away.
  • Ciovacco says that each of these 200 stores will train some associates to answer questions about the smart products on display. But that’s what they all say. In reality … no one on the floor at Lowe’s knows anything about Iris. No one at Home Depot knows where the “smart home” products are. No one at Staples has even heard of Staples Connect … and so on and so on. At least that’s been my own experience.

I believe that Sears could do better than other retailers in the pack, thanks primarily to its service infrastructure and wide range of product categories store-wide; however, I’m not so sure the investment in retail floor space will pay off—not necessarily for the flagship experience center in San Bruno, which has other purposes, but for the proposed 48-linear-feet in 200 stores. Think how many treadmills, air conditioners or baby clothes you could sell in that space.

If the, those boxes of home automation gear will be relegated to some dusty shelves in the electronics department, long forgotten by store staffers.

Might we see a day when home automation rises to the importance of mobile phones in big-box retailers, with dedicated staff trained to enlighten consumers and sell, sell, sell?

Maybe so, but it may take some recurring revenue for the retailer to get there.

Footnote on Target

Target, too, has its own version of a smart home in the San Francisco area, just a few miles from the Sears store. The offerings are quite similar to those at Sears, but the space is not packed with boxes of product and working demos. Instead, the Target “Open House” is a highly stylized transparent structure with Lucite walls and fake Lucite “furnishings” (pictures here). As opposed to the Sears, where you can buy the furniture in the smart space, at Target you can’t even sit on it.

In every regard, Target simplifies the experience – promoting only 35 products, or about one-third of Sears’ lineup.

Like the furniture, the demos (powered by home automation software Yonomi) are simulated. Instead of controlling a real garage door, you see one open and close virtually via the interactive surfaces in the space.

From the reviews of others, it appears the Target Open House is ably staffed by trained associates, but the retailer lacks the infrastructure to install and support the home-tech products it sells, especially nationwide.

Installation Prices for Sears Connected Solutions

Subject to change

Hub plus 3 items: $179.99
Hub plus 6 items: $219.99
Hub plus 9 items: $249.99
Hub plus 12 items: $289.99
Hub plus 15 items: $329.99
Hard wire item: $119.99
Hub/Router Only: $179.99
Doorbell Camera: $119.99
Door Lock: $119.99
Doorbell Camera/Door Lock Combo: $219.99
Light Switch / Plugs (Hard wire): $119.99
Thermostat: $119.99
Estimates (Camera / Security Systems): $69.99

Note: All prices are for basic installation. If there is additional work needed to make the site ready or to compensate for the condition of the site, additional costs may apply. The Provider would give these costs at time of installation.

Note: All prices are quote as per item except where you specified. Additional items and prices, separate orders must be used.

BASIC INSTALLATION INCLUDES:

  • Inspection of all products present at the home prior to installation for any visible physical damage (all products for installation must be present at home at time of installation. Provider does not deliver any products.)
  • Inspection of installation work area prior to start of installation
  • Identify any additional work required and review cost prior to performing any work (except where additional work may be hidden from view, such as electrical work, router issues, etc.)
  • Hook up all new Connected Solutions / Wi-Fi products to existing, operational internet / Wi-Fi (we will only connect products purchased at Sears, and member must have working internet at home)
  • Download applicable phone-related apps to all cell phones present (not to exceed 5 cell phones)
  • Walk member through how to use the product
  • Walk member through how to reconnect product if connection is lost due to Wi-Fi issue
  • Dispose of job related debris (we will leave merchandise boxes with member if requested for return purposes)

COMMON ADDITIONAL FEES AND/OR PARTS:

  • New router - current router is not strong enough to handle load of new products
  • Booster - current router is too far from products being installed
  • Lighting and or work above 10 feet – any lighting and or product being installed above 10 feet on walls, ceilings, balconies, etc.
  • Access fees – if provider has to go in the attic or under the home to complete the installation

RELATED:
Sears Makes Headway with Home Director (2002)
CompUSA Launches Home Systems Business (2002)
Best Buy, Exceptional Innovation and ConnectedLife.Home (2006)
Best Buy: A Brief History of Integration (2006)
Can Circuit City Do Custom? (2006)
Circuit City Firedog to Install Control4 in 9 Exclusive Ginn Resorts (2007)
Home Depot Abandons Security, Smart Home Installations (2008)
Can RadioShack & Other Retailers Sell Home Automation? (2010)
Staples Launches Connect Home Automation; Teams with Lutron for Lighting, Shades (2013)
Staples Connect Home Automation Hits Stores Today (2013)
Q&A: Why Amazon Opened Home Automation Store (2013)
I Ask Again: Can Home Automation Succeed at Retail? (2013)
Confirmed: Peq Home Automation Will Sell at Best Buy with Icontrol Service (2014)
Best Buy to Roll Out ‘Connected Home’ Departments in 400 Stores (2014)
Wink, Home Depot Aim to ‘Take Confusion Out’ of Home Automation (2014)
Staples Connect vs. Lowe’s Iris: Home Automation Smackdown at CES 2014 (2014)
Wink Has Sold 300k Home Automation Hubs, But Biz is Dying; Whither the DIY Dream? (2015)
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JULIE JACOBSON
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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at [email protected]

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