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    Sears Auto Center Scandal

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    SEARS, ROEBUCK, AND CO.: THE AUTO CENTER SCANDAL
    Sears, Roebuck, and Co. began in the late 1800s as a mail-order company that sold
    farm supplies and other consumer items. Its first retail store opened in the mid-1920s.
    Responding to changes in American society, such as the move from farms to factories
    and the presence of the automobile in many homes, hundreds of retail stores
    opened over the years. The company expanded rapidly, and eventually it diversified
    to include other businesses: insurance (Allstate Insurance), real estate (Coldwell
    Banker), securities (Dean Witter Reynolds), and credit cards (Discover). Each of
    these other businesses became its own division, in addition to the merchandising
    group which included retail stores, appliances, and auto service centers. By the early
    1990s, the company was reporting revenues and earnings in the billions of dollars.40
    Despite its long history of high earnings and its penetration into the U.S. market,
    Sears' retail business began to experience serious financial difficulties in the 1980s.
    Discount retailers such as Wal-Mart were pulling ahead in market share, leaving
    Sears lagging. Sears responded by adding non-Sears name brands and an "everyday
    low price" policy. But despite these efforts, in 1990 Sears reported a 40 percent
    decline in earnings, with the merchandising group dropping a whopping 60 percent!
    Cost-cutting measures were planned, including the elimination of jobs and a focus on
    profits at every level.41
    In 1991, Sears unveiled a productivity incentive plan to increase profits in its
    auto centers nationwide. Auto mechanics had traditionally been paid an hourly wage
    and were expected to meet production quotas. In 1991, the compensation plan was
    changed to include a commission component. Mechanics were paid a base salary plus
    a fixed dollar amount for meeting hourly production quotas. Auto service advisors
    186 PART III ETHICS AND THE MANAGER
    (the counter people who take orders, consult with mechanics, and advise customers)
    had traditionally been paid a salary. In order to increase sales, however, commissions
    and product-specific sales quotas were introduced for them as well. For example, a
    service advisor might be given the goal of selling a certain number of front-end alignments
    or brake repairs during each shift.42
    In June 1992, the California Department of Consumer Affairs accused Sears,
    Roebuck, and Co. of violating the state's Auto Repair Act and sought to revoke the
    licenses of all Sears auto centers in California. The allegation resulted from an
    increasing number of consumer complaints and an undercover investigation of brake
    repairs. Other states quickly followed suit. Essentially, the charges alleged that Sears
    Auto Centers had been systematically misleading customers and charging them for
    unnecessary repairs. The California investigation attributed the problems to Sears
    Auto Centers' compensation system.43
    In response to the charges, Sears CEO and Chairman Edward A. Brennan
    called a news conference to deny that any fraud had occurred, and he defended
    Sears' focus on preventive maintenance for older cars. He admitted to isolated
    errors, accepted personal responsibility for creating an environment where "mistakes"
    had occurred, and outlined the actions the company planned to take to
    resolve the issue. These included:
    _ Eliminating the incentive compensation program for service advisors
    _ Substituting commissions based on customer satisfaction
    _ Eliminating sales quotas for specific parts and repairs
    _ Substituting sales volume quotas
    According to Brennan, "We have to have some way to measure performance."44
    Sears also introduced "shopping audits" of its auto centers in which employees
    would pose as customers, and Brennan published a letter of explanation to the company's
    customers in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today on June 25, 1992.
    Note that the compensation system for mechanics, based on number of tasks performed
    and parts replaced, was maintained. In the summer of 1992, Chuck Fabbri, a
    Sears mechanic from California, sent a letter about Sears' wage policy for mechanics
    to U.S. Senator Richard Bryan. Fabbri said:
    It is my understanding that Sears is attempting to convince your committee
    that all inspections in their auto centers are now performed by
    employees who are paid hourly and not on commission. This is not the
    case. The truth is that the majority of employees performing inspections
    are still on commission....
    The Service Advisors ... sell the repair work to the customer.... The
    repairs that they sell are not only based on their inspections, but to a
    larger degree based on the recommendations of mechanics who are on
    commission....
    On January 1, 1991, the mechanics, installers and tire changers had
    their hourly wages cut to what Sears termed a fixed dollar amount, or
    FDA per hour which varied depending on the classification. At present
    CHAPTER 7 MANAGING FOR ETHICAL CONDUCT 187
    the mechanic's FDA amount is $3.25 which, based on current Sears minimum
    production quotas, is 17% of my earnings. What this means is that
    for every hour of work, as defined by Sears, that I complete, I receive
    $3.25 plus my hourly base pay. If I do two hours worth of work in one
    hour I receive an additional $3.25 therefore increasing my earnings.
    Sears calls this type of compensation incentive pay or piecework;
    however, a rose by any other name is still a rose. This is commission plain
    and simple. The faster I get the work done the more money I make, and
    as intended, Sears' profits increase. It is therefore obvious to increase his
    earnings, a mechanic might cut corners on, or eliminate altogether, procedures
    required to complete the repair correction. In addition to this,
    since the mechanic often inspects or performs the diagnosis, he has the
    ideal opportunity to oversell or recommend more repair work than is
    needed. This would be especially tempting if it has been a slow day or
    week. In part greed may create this less than ethical situation, but high
    pressure to meet quotas by Sears' management also presents a significant
    contribution. I have recently been threatened with termination if my production
    didn't at least equal Sears' minimum quotas. I might add that
    prior to this new wage policy, management had only positive response to
    my production, and my record proves this....
    There is no doubt in my mind that before their auto center employees
    were put on commission Sears enjoyed the trust of its customers.
    Today presents a different story. The solution is obvious not only for
    Sears, but for the industry.45
    Sears agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement with the state of California and the
    41 other states that had filed similar charges. The company was placed on three-year
    probation in California. It also settled a number of consumer class-action suits. In
    July 1992, the U.S. Congress held hearings on fraud in the auto repair industry.
    The long-term impact of the scandal is unclear. Sears has now sold off its securities
    firm, the Discover card, most of its real estate and mortgage business, and 20
    percent of Allstate Insurance. At the end of 1992, auto center sales lagged behind
    prior levels.46 Also in 1992, Business Week reported that employees in other areas of
    Sears' business, such as insurance and appliance sales, were feeling the same kinds
    of pressures from sales quotas.47

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    The solution addresses the ethical violations that Sears Auto Centers experienced and discusses the factors involved in the ethics violation

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