To test their phone creations, the engineers descend into the department store with handsets and grab customers in the aisles. To obtain feedback on Web sites, workers take shoppers upstairs to a small laboratory that resembles a recording studio.
Inside, testers sit across a plate-glass window from the subjects and speak to them via microphone while a camera watches their eyes wander the computer screen. A recent quiz gauges shopper reaction to a new application that lets people check out shoes from every angle.
"We are not batting a thousand. There are failed apps," says Tom Emmons, a former programmer for the Orbitz.com travel site who spearheads Sears's mobile e-commerce team. "But we are being asked to take risks, and we're taking them...If you look at the demographics of our shoppers and iPhone apps, there doesn't appear to be a lot of overlap. But people use this stuff."
To Mr. Emmons's surprise, Sears customers are buying things like lawn tractors on their iPhones as well as electronics and clothes, suggesting a potential audience broader than foreseen.
Sears has also been tapping into the power of social-networking sites as a way to drive sales and win customer loyalty. With the help of industry veterans at a Chicago company called Viewpoints Network, in the spring it launched sites called MySears.com and MyKmart.com. Combined, the sites now have 400,000 registered users.
Members can sign into the sites with their Facebook accounts to ask questions about products and review them. Company employees monitor the conversations to stay abreast of complaints and customer-service problems.
"You can quantify the value of the insights customers bring," says Viewpoints CEO Matt Moog. "If consumers are rating products very low consistently, that would trigger the merchandise person to talk to the manufacturer—and reduce returns."