Once the number one retailer in the US, Sears now struggles to maintain its sales against Wal-Mart and others (Sears now ranks eighth).1 However, in the home appliance and air conditioning markets, they are still a huge player. Surprisingly, this is the result of not just their popular Kenmore line of air conditioners, but also a move back to the new mail order market – the Internet.
Sears once dominated mail order – back when mail order was done with catalogs through the actual mail. Now, customers can shop online, compare prices, find what they need – and then pick up the merchandise at a local Sears store, without paying shipping costs. This represents a major advantage when purchasing an air conditioner. Units are heavy and have high shipping costs.
The Kenmore brand
Sears owns and sells the Kenmore brand of appliances2, including air conditioners. Once exclusive to Sears, after a merger with K-mart in 2005, the brand is now sold there as well.
A solid brand name is great for sales in the appliance marketplace. What consumers may not know however, is that Kenmore (and other Sears brands, notably Craftsman) are not owned by K-mart or Sears. That part of the business was split off into a holding company for financial reasons. Also, Kenmore products are not manufactured by Sears – in fact, the Kenmore line is made by many different manufacturers, all over the world.3
Still, Kenmore accounts for the most appliances sold in the US and has a market share more than 50% higher than its next competitor.4 The brand also ranks first or second in every major category, including air conditioners.
Line of air conditioners and service
The products available range from a small window unit (6,000 BTU/ $270)5, all the way up to a large model (25,000 BTU/ $590).6 Central air conditioning systems are sold under other brand names, including Carrier. Central air systems are sold in partnership with local, Sears-approved HVAC contractors.
When using an approved installer, Sears gives a full one-year warranty in addition to manufacture warranty. In many areas they also offer 24-hour emergency maintenance. On the sales side, Sears is very competitive, offering price matching and a money back policy.7
It’s the availability of parts and local service centers that gives Sears a leg up on others trying to enter the market. When purchasing an air conditioner online (or at other retailers) it can be difficult to get repairs or find parts. Because Sears stocks these items at local service centers, customers are able to keep their systems running. Since breakdowns usually occur in times of high use (summer), quick repairs are a great selling point.
Prices are very good, especially when you can buy online and pick up at a local outlet. Their rated “best buy” on the low end is a 5,200 BTU, Energy Star rated, Kenmore window unit — $160 (with in-store pickup).8 Although inexpensive, this basic unit comes with a remote and is rated as “very quiet” by consumers.
Some prices and features of other window units:9
- Kenmore 8,000 BTU window unit, Energy Star rated, Auto-cool, filter replacement reminder, $210.00 (all prices are for in-store pick up).
- Kenmore 10,000 BTU window unit, sleep mode, one touch cool, 8-way air management, Energy Star rated, $275.
- Kenmore 12,000 BTU window unit, Energy Star rated, 24-hour on/off timer, 8-way air management, $300.
- Kenmore 18,500 BTU window unit, heat/cool functions, heat pump capability, 4-way air management, $600.
- Kenmore 25,000 BTU window unit, location sensing, remote control, 8-way air management, Energy Star rated, $590.
Because of the popularity of the Kenmore brand, there are lots of customer reviews available. In general, Kenmore gets high marks – especially in the lower priced models. Reliability and cooling capacity were ranked highly.10 Criticisms come with the loud beeping heard when modes are changed, automatic cycling when the fan comes on unexpectedly (noise) and the inability for the eight-way air distribution to actually direct the majority of the airflow.11
Even with the criticisms, Kenmore still ranks very well, with a high majority (>90%) of customers willing to recommend the products to others.
With a good selection of window units, low prices, local service centers and an excellent warranty, the Kenmore line of window air conditioners will likely continue to dominate the US market in that niche. The question is whether a window unit is the best solution as energy prices rise. It is not possible to make a window unit that is as efficient as a split system – simply because having the heat exchange in the same box as the cooling coils prevents the excellent isolation (and insulation) available to split systems.
One other consideration is the lack of options and features. Higher end products from other companies that have air purification, zone control, wireless capability (and other features popular in Asia and Europe) can make inroads if pricing isn’t the main consideration. This, along with the requirement to have an available window, means Japanese brands will continue to take market share from Kenmore. Businesses in particular shy away from a relatively noisy and unattractive window unit when a split system is an option. Also, as energy efficiency rules continue to rise, window units in general are likely to lose their Energy Star status, along with any tax credits available.
One final consideration is Sears’ ability to continue to offer excellent service locally.12 Since each store has to partner with a local HVAC contractor for installation and service, rising prices in this market will impact Sears’ ability to offer warranty and service work. Foreign competitors are free to offer their own network of HVAC professionals, using the same model as Sears.