What Happened, Sears?

As the 125-year-old retailing icon slid beneath the waves this year, it’s worth remembering how powerful it once was
By
|
Posted November 12, 2018

There is a Sears Avenue in my former Louisville, Ky., neighborhood.

People give directions by saying, “It’s across the street from Sears,” or “Turn right before the Sears.”

By the way, there’s no longer a Sears store there. Hasn’t been in at least the 15 years I’ve been living in Louisville, and probably for 10 or more years before that.

There’s a Big Lots there, among other businesses, but you rarely hear, “It’s across from Big Lots.”

The ghost of Sears haunts that location, as it does countless other American neighborhoods and communities.

It’s all part of a syndrome, how retail gets inside our cultural souls. The downtown department stores. The blocks of neighborhood mom-and-pop storefronts. The malls.

But Sears more than most. Sears rarely went into cities’ downtowns, instead laying its pad in all of those burgeoning outlying neighborhoods, especially after World War II. Sears brought the selection that small, specialized neighborhood stores couldn’t offer. It also brought lower prices that the big department stores had trouble matching. It offered the convenience of not having to take a bus or subway downtown, or not having to fight for parking. And, by the way, it offered a shopping “experience,” decades before anyone thought to apply that word to a store.

How many mid-1950s moms told their broods on a Saturday afternoon, “Dad’s going to look at tools, you guys can go to toys, and I’m going to buy some linens. Let’s all meet back up in appliances.”

And for the rural communities, a Sears store was the Sears-Roebuck catalog come to life. How proud these small towns felt when they were chosen to host a modern new Sears store.

“Go to Sears” was a declaration of buying quality at a good price.

In the early 1970s, I wrote articles on both A&P and Montgomery Ward for a New York business magazine. Ward had been almost as well-regarded as Sears, another catalog come to bricks-and-mortar life. Supermarket A&P had been America’s biggest retailer for several decades. Both, at the time, were struggling. Sears was simply outperforming everybody. Bold. Filled with initiatives. Taking smart chances.

Building the Sears Tower. When the 110-story Chicago skyscraper was completed in 1973, it was the tallest building in the world – a fitting testimony to the muscle and power of the world’s strongest retail brand.

So what happened? Did Sears take its eye off the ball? Become complacent? A victim of poor management? Maybe.

But not always. Remember the “Softer Side of Sears” campaign in the 1990s? Brilliant! The CEO, a former Saks Fifth Avenue merchant named Arthur Martinez, and a team of executives from the consumer brand world refocused the stores, from male bastions of tools, auto parts and big appliances to apparel, curtains and drapery, fabrics, small kitchen appliances, home-decorating items. “Women are the target audience, the decision-makers,” Martinez declared, “even when shopping for men’s goods.”

Sears suddenly became the retailer everybody envied, the subject of business school case studies. It didn’t last long. Martinez left after a few years. Maybe Sears wasn’t prepared anymore to support such boldness. Sales began to fall again. Analysts said the Softer Side campaign had “become stale” – in four years! And remember, this was even before Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos were reducing the concept of change from decades to weeks.

Next was Eddie Lampert, who proclaimed he knew best – but what he knew best was real estate. And Sears had a ton of it. However, those great suburban locations had long ago been left behind as the population moved further and further out (where there was always a Walmart waiting for them), then swung around and moved back into urban neighborhoods. Sears found itself in no man’s land. Lampert’s treasured real estate had become devalued.

And then came the digital revolution. Most retailers simply couldn’t anticipate what Jobs, Bezos and several other tech-savvy visionaries saw clearly. And so, when retail needed to be more adroit than ever, Sears was out of ideas. Its demise this year was right out of T.S. Elliott: “Not with a bang but a whimper.” It felt more like, “What took so long?”

The Bible says, “How the mighty have fallen.” An ancient proverb says, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Or maybe that was an Elvis song.

And the Sears Tower? Today, it’s Willis Tower. Ask any passing Chicagoan who Willis is. The best answer you’re likely to get is, “Wasn’t he the brother in ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ ”?

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.