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Sears Hedge Fund Manager CEO Calls Criticism of Faltering Retailer “Unfair”

SearsPhotograph by John Greim — LightRocket/Getty Images

Sears Holdings (SHLD) capped off another disastrous year with a new set of awful financial results.

Yet, the retailer’s CEO, and hedge fund manager, Eddie Lampert says critics are being too harsh. “Because of Sears and Kmart’s longstanding history and cultural impact, we are targeted for criticism when our results are poor,” Lampert wrote in his annual letter to shareholders, workers, and customers, which was published on Thursday. He added: “But it is unfair to evaluate our approach through the rearview mirror without acknowledging the changing circumstanced in our industry as well as our bold attempts to change the way we do business.”

The industry’s woes were clear in Sears’ results. The shriveling retailer, which operates namesake department stores and the Kmart discount chain, reported a wider net loss and a big sales drop for the holiday season quarter. The company’s annual comparable sales, which exclude the impact of new or shuttered stores, have not grown since Sears and Kmart were merged by Lampert in 2005.

The latest indignity? Sears wrote down the worth of its once iconic brand, cutting its value by $180 million.

But analysts say the trouble at Sears is not just a macro industry problem. They say Sears is reaping what it sowed with years of underinvestment in stores, and uninspired merchandising. That has resulted in a severely compromised retailer that has had to sell off some of its most valuable assets in recent years, including some of its best stores and businesses like Lands’ End, to raise billions and avert a cash crunch.

But Lampert, Sears’ CEO since 2016 and its top investor with a 57.6% stake, seems to feel the commentariat just doesn’t get his years-long plan to turn Sears from a traditional big-box retailer into one based on serving members digitally (through the Shop Your Way loyalty program) with less reliance on physical stores.

The hedge fund manager touted the 6.9% comparable sales drop at Sears and 7.2% decline at Kmart in the fourth quarter as an “improvement” over even bigger decreases in preceding quarters. But the incontrovertible fact is that none of its peers, even struggling Macy’s (M), experienced anything near to the bloodbath at Sea. In fact, rivals Target, (TGT)Kohl’s (KSS) and J.C. Penney (JCP) saw sales rise.

One thing he is right about is Sears’ great e-commerce chops: Sears has been offering in-store pickup for online orders for years—way before its immediate rivals. And Shop Your Way is seen as a leader in its ability to offer personalized offers, and is driving more and more of Sears’ business. Tech is undeniably a bright spot for Sears.

But what good is it if no one wants to buy what Sears has to offer? Case in point: clothing. Last month, Fortune reported that a poll by Prosper Insights & Analytics, found Sears ranked below Goodwill among women’s apparel shopping intentions. Lampert himself recognized as much: “Our apparel business nevertheless needs significant improvement.”

Sears, though, continues to be the leader in appliances. It has launched the Kenmore PRO Appliance line of premium appliances. And it has built up a top notch team of tech talent in Seattle to beef up its ability to diagnose appliance problems remotely, a nice edge in the competitive servicing industry. Still, smelling blood in the water, J.C. Penney is taking the plunge into the appliance market after a 33-year absence, and could take away some of Sears’ business.

To adjust to years of collapsing sales, Sears has pared its store fleets: Kmart is now down to 941 locations from 1,309 just five years ago, while Sears’ namesake department stores now number 705, from 868 in 2011.

But in his letter, Lampert tries to position Sears has been a visionary by seeing the need for smaller footprints long before rivals. Chains—he doesn’t say which—”are now experiencing the realities that we have recognized and have been addressing for years” by reducing the number of stores. True: Macy’s, (M) Kohl’s, (KSS) J.C. Penney (JCP) and Walmart (WMT) are just some of retailers to have closed stores recently, but none come remotely close to closing as many as Sears.

Lampert notes in his letter that retailers previously “relatively immune” to the industry’s problems, like Walmart, Nordstrom (JWN), Macy’s, Staples (SPLS), and Whole Foods Market (WFM) have been hit by the broader retail sector’s woes.

But it is a bit rich for Lampert to frame the industry’s problems as if he had seen them coming before other retailers. Clearly, he hasn’t done a better job navigating them than others. Since 2010, Sears Holdings has had a cumulative net loss of more than $8 billion.

To his credit, Lampert acknowledges this can’t go on forever. “It is neither our goal nor our intention to use our asset value to fund continued operating losses,” he writes. Because that would be unfair to investors.