A Christmas “Gift” From Sears

Inventor Dan Brown holding his Bionic Wrench (green) and the Chinese made Craftsman copy (red) sold by Sears.

Sears is a dwarf of the consumer superpower it used to be when it was the place you first thought of to do your shopping for a washing machine or a screwdriver. Now it’s becoming synonymous with screwing its suppliers.

ABC World News with Dianne Sawyer recently did a story about Sears hijacking the intellectual property of a brilliant tinkerer, Dan Brown. Brown built his little American company, LoggerHead Tools, on his elegant product called the Bionic Wrench, which grabs a nut on six sides so it won’t slip, as so often happens with your not-so-trusty crescent wrench.

Brown works in the great tradition of American garage inventors, playing with his idea until he got it right. He did make one giant mistake reaching for the brass ring though – he trusted Sears to have an exclusive to sell his baby.

I’ve had a bit of an inside view of this saga because Graff-Pinkert sold a Hydromat to a supplier of Brown. A few months ago Brown notified my customer that he was cancelling his orders because Sears had cancelled him out for Christmas. The reason soon became obvious, Sears is selling a knockoff of the Bionic Wrench in its Craftsman Tool line. The wrench is a Chinese copy of Brown’s product, which is blatantly clear to even the most casual observer, but Sears was willing to kick the little guy who allowed Sears an exclusive on his product.

If Sears was trying to kill LoggerHead Tools, they could not have had better timing. Brown had a ton of inventory in the pipeline for the Sears product. They stonewalled him on actually issuing the orders for Christmas, so he and his suppliers were in the quicksand of needing to produce to meet expected demand or face the prospect of not being able to deliver on time.

Since the Sears cancellation, Brown has laid off 31 workers and has been getting orders from other big box retailers, but he had accumulated a lot of inventory in anticipation of big Sears sales this Christmas. He is in a precarious spot because he trusted Craftsman, “America’s Most Trusted Tool Brand.”

Sears is not a big winner here. Brown is a resilient guy. He teaches design at Northwestern University and has been savvy enough to get some press coverage in The New York Times, which led to an Internet undertow against Sears and a national TV story on Diane Sawyer’s ABC World News broadcast. Sears is being sullied by the lousy publicity of intellectual property theft, pounding the little guy, and outsourcing a growing American made product to China with the accompanying job loss. It’s not a story that helps Sears endear itself to “Middle America,” which Sears intends to sell to.

Eddie Lampert, a former hedge fund mogul, bought a controlling interest in Sears Holdings Corporation a few years ago, and the stock has lost value year after year since he bought it. Amazon and Home Depot are eating its lunch.

Sears was shrewd to grab hold of Dan Brown’s Bionic Wrench in 2011, which they did well on. But by double crossing Brown in 2012 they now have a public relations mess on their hands, which is growing worse by the day. Brown has suffered a setback but his product is a good one, and it’s building its brand outside of Sears.

I’m ordering one myself today through Amazon because Sears was sneaky, arrogant and stupid.

Question: Is it a lost cause today for a little guy to develop a consumer product?

Read The NY Times article here. Visit LoggerHead Tools here.

Watch the video of Diane Sawyer’s story on the Bionic Wrench here.

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25 thoughts on “A Christmas “Gift” From Sears

  1. AvatarVal Zanchuk

    It’s not a lost cause, but the process is stacked against the inventor. The inventor/small manufacturer has to be a saavy business person as well. Working with a large distribution partner may be enticing, but the costs and ethical risks of such a partnership are high. On-line distribution and social media can make the process of marketing and distribution much easier for a small manufacturer. The growth rate may be slower, but the control of the product is much higher. If you go with the big guys, prepare to be screwed and structure your deal with that in mind.

  2. AvatarMike Greely

    Boycott sears!
    Those underhanded bastards.
    They are as unamerican as the people who voted obama back in.

  3. AvatarWayne Mader

    This is the email I sent to many friends after reading the article.

    —– Original Message —–
    From: Today’s Machining World
    To: genesis@skypoint.com
    Sent: Monday, November 19, 2012 1:19 PM
    Subject: A Christmas “Gift” From Sears

  4. AvatarRon

    Looks like if enough people refuse to buy Sears products they would soon be on their knees. Count me as one of those people.

  5. AvatarJeffrey Kopp

    I sure hope the day of the small inventor isn’t gone!! Without these market creators we are all dead! I was in the hardware store (not Sears more in that shortly) I saw stacked in the entrance cut round sections of wood with a handle on the side; not really sure what I was looking at I read the label; it’s a portable one use log for campfires or fire pits with a self starting wick! What a clever idea and I’m sure I will buy one and try it before the fall is over! On to Sears! Not only are they screening suppliers they are screwing their customers! I was a diehard (get it?) Sears buyer, washer dryer frig two flat screens etc; Bought over $1000 worth of tires from them; two fronts developed bubbles on the sidewalls within three months of purchase; they wouldn’t replace or refund because when I bought them I didn’t request a front alignment, nor did they offer one and state it was a requirement! That and the way Citibank sears credit card suppliers application of six months financing money is so swayed to their benefit it makes the Illinois tollway look like parish priests! I will never buy another product from Sears, but I will buy that log and I will buy one of this guys wrenches!!

  6. AvatarDerek

    Craftsmen’s quality has gone downhill for years now, and now this….I’ll shop elsewhere. Their powertool line is a joke.

  7. AvatarPeter

    I read an article in “Inc.” magizine a few years back, about how Walmart did the same thing to a guy who invented a big paperclip. I used to have a better opinion of Sears than I do now.

  8. AvatarBJ Johnson

    And Sears is a repeat offender on this. They screwed the guy that came up with the button on the head to release the socket about 20 years ago

  9. AvatarPBK

    Well I now know what gift I want to buy for the tool guys in the family but I won’t buy it from Sears. I am going to buy it from the source of who developed the product not the bigwig who is shafting the developer. Ethics is important and the lack thereof has ruined businesses. Sears is not the first or the last. Buyer beware.

  10. AvatarJohn "Jack" Frost

    The filing/award of a patent does not give you a monopoly item. It only gives you the right to sue for damages occasioned by infringement. If you can’t afford to patent your idea properly, don’t waste money on the legal fees. When inventing something there are questions that you should ask your self. Can it be made differently, thinner, fatter, lighter,stronger. Most of us who invent things are sure that what we have created is the ultimate concept and design until the guy down the street proves us wrong. Small Businessmen have always been victims of IP theft, I say victim, because any effort to get compensation for infringement is a bankrupting episode. IP theft in the defense industries is a way of life for the small business man. By the way, a good trademark is better protection than a patent. Over the last 60 years I have collected the horror stories of IP theft and will put them together under the title, “SCREWED, BLUED AND TATTOOED, Doing Business in the Defense Industries”

  11. Avatarclayton smith

    I sued Sears Lloyd,

    They said “You are a pissant and we are a billion dollar company”.
    They had given me a blanket purchase order instead of contract and when they refused to take product that I’d hired twenty extra people to make, and after the above verbatum comment I sued them.
    It took me six months to find a lawyer and three years through federal court but I won.
    They were countersuing me on the basis of a contract they said didn’t exist.
    Our friend will win in court but he must do what I did and maintain that their words and action constituted a contract and that is why Dan Brown was making product for them alone. He will win in a jury court but expect Sears, like they did with us, to spend more money at trial than they owe him. They will spare no expense and hire the most prestigious law firm money can buy.

    Good luck Dan Brown

  12. AvatarDick Crosby

    I’m sick at heart. It’s a pure sadness to suddenly have to think and/or realize that a trusted brand like Craftsman is now, today, being offered by a (former) flagship company like Sears, that has fallen to a new low on the ethics sale. Is nothing sacred anymore?
    I’m talking about American business morality. I’ve got a huge amount of Craftsman tools. I’ll now think twice before automatically heading there for my next tool.
    Maybe I’ll buy myself a Loggerhead wrench for Christmas. Give ’em hell Brownie!

  13. AvatarKelly

    I can’t remember the last time I bought something at Sears. Looks like its inevitable demise its well on its way.

  14. AvatarJim Goerges

    What is good for big business, is not what is good for small business. I have a couple products patented and a few products that I should have patented. The problem in society is free will, many times that is good and gracious, however, many times that is thorn in your foot. It is essential to have a good patent attorney who is honest with you. It is the responsibilty of the patent holder to protect there patent. These are the rules and it is best to know them up front. I think it is possible to get a product to market that is consumer related but, it is a lot of work and requires help from people who “know”, you have to do your homework and realize the incredible effort it takes, add to this time and money, it should make you do some head scratching!

  15. AvatarDave

    I’m sure most of you have seen the movie “Flash of Genius”!!. If not, you should look it up. It is the same (true) story about the guy who invented the intermittent windshied wiper which was blatently stolen by Ford and Chrysler. But after many years of exhaustive effort and personal consequenses, he did finally win in court. But the cost was terrible.

    Watch the movie and see if you feel the same about boycotting Ford and Chrysler??? They are much bigger clients for our industry.

    Remember–the big guys can do illegal or unethical things and have the money to defend their actions, which few individuals can match.

    Like has been said in previous comments–be careful of your agreements, but also be prepared to be able to great expense to afford to defend them if they are violated. It’s a question of benefit vs cost.

  16. AvatarDan Richter

    Paraphrasing, I heard a VP of a sporting goods company once say “If we see something we want, we don’t care if its patented…We have in-house patent attornies and we’ll drag it out in courts and bankrupt the inventor.” If I remember correctly, it took the guy who invented intermittent wipers well over 20 years to finally win in court.

    @Steve Ignots: Do you have any idea what is going on, what this man stands for, and what you voted for? He is anti-American. If you want to live in European type Democratic Socialism and still consider yourself American, then you voted for the right guy. $16T+ in debt and $1T deficits as far as the eye can see is unsustainable or as Obama himself said “The problem is, is that the way Bush has done it over the last eight years is to take out a credit card from the Bank of China in the name of our children, driving up our national debt from $5 trillion dollars for the first 42 presidents — number 43 added $4 trillion dollars by his lonesome, so that we now have over $9 trillion dollars of debt that we are going to have to pay back — $30,000 for every man, woman and child. That’s irresponsible. It’s unpatriotic.”

  17. AvatarJeff Remaley

    I would recommend we re-visit the passing of the “Invent America Act” and the impact it has on the “Inventor/entrepreneur” here is an excerpt from an article written before it’s passage: “For the inventor/entrepreneur, this latest careless approach by the Congress to the U.S. patent laws is a very serious matter. Changing the U.S. to a “First to File” country violates the Constitutional mandate to reserve to “Inventors” exclusive rights of a patent. By revising our patent laws to a first to file rule, Congress is not securing the exclusive rights of inventors. Instead, it is taking those patent rights from inventors and giving them to whomever has the resources to game the legal system most effectively and win the race to the patent office.

    The Constitution does not reserve patent rights to the most fleet of foot or the company with the most resources to quickly prepare and file a patent application. The Constitution reserves those patent rights to the first inventor, not the first filer.”

    Article: http://www.orthopreneurpub.com/component/content/article/89-the-qinvent-america-actq?start=1

  18. AvatarSteve Finkelman

    Sears has been using this practice for years, not just with tools. One of my uncles made jackets. It was in the 1970’s. Sears hasn’t changed.

    With large companies doing much less R&D. innovation has to come from somewhere. Small businesses, startups, and garage inventors is where it comes from. Instead, it’s cheaper for a giant to buy or screw a small company than it is to keep R&D in house. It’s sad, intellectual Capitol is at best wasted, dissipated, discouraged, and not developed.
    Best practices, “grandfather knowledge” are lost and forgotten. it’s not all bad, though. Innovation is coming from startups that because they lack the legacy, need to reinvent the wheel, even though it is an inefficient a process.

    Hacker/maker spaces, toolshops and friends working with other in garages are lights on the horizon. Older machine tools end up there and people are starting to, play with them and learn how to use them. There is a hunger within the spaces for the ‘legacy knowledge’.

    Lloyd, it seems that your audience consists of people who do have that knowledge. Please encourage the support of these groups by sharing knowledge, expertise and generocity. These are the places where future skills and innovation is being developed.

    I applaud Dan for his inventiveness. I support his challenge and his telling the story. I also support your efforts with this newsletter where I can read and learn from his story and those like it.
    Go Dan!


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