A recent Business Insider article (linked at Instapundit) showed a very depressing Sears store somewhere in northern Virginia. I suspect that I feel more pain than many others do when seeing the residual waste products of a once-great American giant.
My mother worked for a Sears catalog store in the small town where I grew up in the late 70’s. It was her first job back in the workforce since she married my father. Stagflation drove a large number of middle-class women back into the job market. She left for a job in the county government a couple of years before Sears closed all the catalog stores, in part because it was clear that the catalog stores were on their way out. They had always been a low-margin marginal business for Sears and the declining rural economy turned most of these stores into perennial money-losers.
As an aside, I’ve seen comments that Sears got out of the catalog business exactly as e-commerce (specifically Amazon) took off. Not exactly; there was a year’s lag between the Sears catalog stores closing in 1993 and Amazon starting in 1994. It’s also worthwhile to remember that Amazon started fairly small (books-only) and lost lots of money getting started. Could Sears have succeeded in e-commerce? It’s hard to see how without turning the business over to someone willing to keep losing money for an extended amount of time building the platform. Someone like Jeff Bezos, I suppose.
I always had the sense that somehow, “the best and the brightest” never ended up working for the Sears of the late 20th century.
Sears was also the epitome of middle-class; unexciting, durable, reliable products brought to you by a centralized bureaucracy and tons of paperwork and obscure product coding systems. Even today, you’ll see way more keystrokes from the register operator at Sears than at almost any other store.
Why yes, I still go to Sears stores on occasion. I have a Shop Your Way card and will occasionally get offers too tempting to turn down, although it’s hard to see how Sears makes any money off of me, as I usually don’t buy more than what I can get under the discount. I’ll still take my car to the local Sears Auto Center for tires and batteries. Kenmore appliances seem to be about as durable as any other major brand, but nothing seems to last as long as appliances did in the 70’s and 80’s. My Kenmore washer is 19 years old and still going strong, while the dryer is 17 years old and had to have the heating element replaced a couple of years back and has lost the moisture sensor, but still works fine on time-only settings.
However, my next-to last Kenmore microwave lasted four months past the end of its warranty, while my last Kenmore microwave died after one day. I’d say that I won’t make that mistake again, but it seems like almost all microwave vendors have similar problems with durability.
Land’s End still has good products that, if you catch them at the right sale, are reasonably priced. However, Land’s End products that are actually found in a Sears retail store are very limited in styles (no pocket polos!) and varieties and almost never reasonably priced.
Second aside: Once upon a time, back in the 80’s, I believe you could buy “lifetime” alignments at Sears Auto. Essentially, as long as you owned the vehicle in question, you could bring it in for tire balancing and alignment; no questions asked, no charge. I had a 1987 Chevy Nova (really a rebadged Toyota Corolla assembled in California) that took advantage of that policy for 16 years, if I remember correctly. I also remember hearing from my mother that the lifetime coverage ended up costing Sears a lot of money over the long run.
Even before my mother started working at Sears, it was a large part of our life. I had Toughskins for the better part of my youth, and a good pair of Toughskins could last for 4 kids (me, two of my cousins, and my younger brother) before being finally outgrown. I’m sure some died, but mostly they were just outgrown. Sure could have used something that durable for my kids.
In addition to Sears being an indispensable clothier, vendor of appliances, and supplier of car and insurance services to rural communities, Sears as an anchor store promoted “mall culture” back when malls were clean and exciting. I still have a soft spot for malls because, when I was a kid in the country, going to the city was a big deal. 3-4 times a year we would load up the car and drive two hours to the nearest large urban area to stock up on lower-cost groceries and other commodities and window-shop in those clean, air-conditioned architectural marvels of commerce. I can still spend an enjoyable afternoon on occasion at the local “good” mall window-shopping, even if I have to risk the elements to get to the Apple Store or Barnes and Noble.
Sears spent much of the second half of the 20th century forming a large conglomerate of businesses designed to cater to the expected needs of the American middle class. When Sears then didn’t make the expected return on the conglomerate, they sold off all the clast and kept the muddy matrix of the retail stores and the land the retail stores sat on. They then sold the matrix to K-mart, a retail store in even worse shape than Sears, essentially converting into a giant mall/shopping center real estate investment company with a retail appendix just at the moment when shopping centers stepped on a banana peel directly in front of a bobsled run. Now Sears Holdings is essentially the landlord for stores like Harbor Freight and Big Lots, when they can find a tenant at all. It’s a long, bittersweet good-bye for an American titan.