As Sears crumbles, Penney's and Best Buy want to pick up the pieces

A customer browses washing machines at a Sears store during the Family and Friends evening sale inside the Del Amo shopping mall in Torrance, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

$310 million.

That's how much revenue tumbled at Sears' U.S. stores during the second quarter, the company said Thursday — and its competitors can smell the blood.

Once recognized as the go-to destination for dishwashers and refrigerators, Sears gave up an estimated $1 billion in major appliance sales last year, according to analysis by TWICE and The Stevenson Company.

Now third to home improvement powerhouses Lowe's and Home Depot, Sears' share of the "white goods" market fell to 19.5 percent last year, according TWICE. That compares with 23.5 percent in 2014, and about 40 percent in its heyday two decades ago.

But Lowe's and Home Depot aren't the only ones that sense opportunity. As part of its reinvention under CEO Marvin Ellison, J.C. Penney is rolling out the category to 500 of its stores this year, with plans to expand it across more of the 1,000-store chain in 2017. And Best Buy, which is building out appliance-focused stores within its stores, reported its 23rd straight quarter of comparable-sales growth in the category earlier this week.

Aided by both Sears' demise and booming housing market, the growing appliance category hasn't gotten too crowded — yet. Not only are all four retailers growing their share, but Euromonitor predicts the $38 billion major appliance space will grow 31 percent from 2015 through 2020. That would put some $12 billion up for grabs.

Much of the category's potential over the next few years will rely on strength in the housing market, and to what degree millennials move outside of the city, Euromonitor analyst Ryan Tuttle said.

Which retailers win and lose will depend on their in-store and digital execution, as well as who connects with the millennial consumer, Tuttle said. Yet there's room for multiple players to grab share. Major appliance sales in the U.S. rose 6.6 percent last year, according to his firm's data.

"We're seeing pretty strong growth, especially on the major appliances side," Tuttle said. "It's a growing market, and it's a market that has a lot of opportunity to grow over, say, the next five years."

Speaking to analysts in Las Colinas, Texas, last week, Penney's Ellison attributed growth in the appliance market to the "robust housing market and innovation." The CEO then pointed to Penney's opportunity to grab Sears' slice of the market, saying it shares more than 400 models with the retailer.

"We are going to be aggressive to make sure that we are positioned to get as much of that donation of share as we can," he said.

Home Depot and Lowe's have likewise been reaping the benefits of both Sears' struggles and a robust housing market. At Home Depot, investments to expand its appliance showroom have helped the retailer grow its assortment, contributing to double-digit growth in the category quarter after quarter.

And even as growth in Lowe's appliance sales have tapered in 2016, CEO Robert Niblock said it's "not seeing any impact from new entrants."

"When we look at our performance in appliances versus the industry, we actually believe we gained share in the second quarter," he said.

Despite optimism that consumers will continue investing in their homes, which would further boost appliance sales for these retailers, the overall home improvement market has shown small signs of a cool down. During the second quarter, comparable sales at both Home Depot and Lowe's grew at a more modest pace than the prior three months.

And even as Sears loses share, including another decrease in the category during the second quarter, it isn't giving up without a fight. Part of the retailer's much-touted transformation strategy includes focusing on growing its "best and most important categories," which include appliances. In May, the company said it had hired Citigroup and LionTree Advisors to explore alternatives for its lauded Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard brands. On Thursday, Sears said it had received interest from a "variety of potential partners."

"The Kenmore brand is still a respected brand," Tuttle said.

Also in May, Sears opened a new 10,000-square-foot store dedicated to appliances, in Ft. Collins, Colorado. And in April, the company introduced a string of connected home products through its three major brands.

"While we don't share individual store sales data, we've been pleased with the member response to our Ft. Collins Sears Appliances store since its opening in May of this year," a Sears spokesman said in a written statement. He added, additional Sears Appliances stores are planned, but declined to provide specific details at this time.

Sears likewise continues to score well in customer satisfaction. The department store climbed one slot in J.D. Power's latest appliance retailer survey, coming in second to Lowe's. Yet as the years go by, its competitive advantage will likely continue to slip.

One of the biggest reasons shoppers choose to buy appliances from a retailer is due to past experience, J.D. Power said. So as Sears' customer base ages — and its competitors grab the attention of millennial shoppers — they could lose even more of their edge.

"You're going to lose some customers if they're not already shopping at Sears," Tuttle said, explaining it's more natural for a person who's used to shopping at Best Buy or Lowe's to turn to that retailer for a major appliance purchase.

"Sears is not necessarily a retailer that [millennials] think of."