HOFFMAN ESTATES, IL: Sears Holdings has responded to speculation Kmart is nearing the end of its run by focusing on internal communications and its efforts to revitalize the retail chain.
Reports by Twice.com and Business Insider in the past week claimed Kmart staffers believe the chain is nearing bankruptcy and parent company Sears Holdings is close to shutting down all of its locations.
Business Insider interviewed employees and reviewed chatter on message boards used by personnel, reporting that staffers believe Kmart stores are in the midst of liquidation.
Shortly afterwards, Chris Brathwaite, VP of media relations and corporate communications, said he and his team brainstormed and rolled out a response after receiving press inquiries following up on the Business Insider story.
"We can’t get bent out-of-shape every single time there’s a negative story written," Brathwaite said. "My audience is the people who work here. If the article is causing concern, we have to act quickly and decisively. It’s not about fighting the story; it’s about putting our story out there."
Brathwaite is the company’s principal media spokesperson, according to his LinkedIn profile, and has been in the position for eight years after joining Sears in 2003, two years prior to its merger with Kmart.
Brathwaite sent a statement to Twice.com saying the company strongly disagrees with the article’s conclusions. It also published a blog jointly written by Alasdair James, president and chief member officer of Kmart, and its head of retail, Gareth Glynne.
In the statement, Brathwaite scolded the outlet for omitting its recent initiatives to restart Kmart’s viability, including its 2015 relaunch. Sears Holdings emphasized it is trying to make the brand’s cost structure more efficient.
"In addition, Sears Holdings is highly focused on restoring profitability to the company, and Kmart remains a key piece of our asset portfolio," Brathwaite said, repeating the same statement director of corporate communications Howard Riefs delivered to Business Insider.
The blog by Glynne and James was addressed to Kmart customers, not the press, and echoed the language used by Brathwaite.
"Sears Holdings is highly focused on restoring profitability to the company and Kmart remains a key part of our asset portfolio," it said. "We’re proud of our associates for the work they do each and every day to help us continually improve and serve our members."
On Wednesday, Fortune published a story noting that Kmart "shot down" claims it was closing and that the rumors were caused by a change in its stocking procedures. Brathwaite said a miscommunication "at the store level" made people jump to conclusions.
The same day, Business Insider followed up with a photo essay detailing a reporter’s trip to a Kmart location.
"Internally, my job was to communicate to stores exactly what was happening with the changes in inventory and that we were rolling it out in phases," Brathwaite said. "This is why not all stores have it. We wanted to see if it works and then roll it out further. With our supply chain infrastructure, you can’t just snap your fingers and change everything."
He added that negative stories "chip away" at the morale of Kmart’s 90,000-plus employees. (Sears Holdings employs a total of 180,000 across all its brands). His job is to leverage all the channels at the company’s disposal to offset the stories’ impact.
"When negative stories come up, we have to remind associates of all the things we’re working on to change the trajectory of the company," Brathwaite said. "For internal communications, we have a social media network where we can communicate in real time. I went on there yesterday to remind everyone that stories that may or may not be fact-based distract us from the work we have to do."