In today’s headlines the Wall Street Journal turns to Sears – the aging department store chain – which will close 150 locations in the next several months. Sears will also sell its iconic Craftsman tool brand (to competitor Stanley/Black & Decker) in a longer-term “fix-it-and-return-it” strategy intended to strengthen the company. Clearly these events feel like the beginning of the end for Sears, and the end has been coming for a long time. The day Sears shutters its last store will be a sad one – as if a slice of the proverbial American apple pie is lost forever.
In the defining years of baby-boomers Sears was the retail destination (and catalog) of choice. Sears Roebuck and Company – as it was originally known – bridged the gap between America’s small-town general stores and today’s elaborate shopping malls. As recently as 1989 Sears was still the largest retailer in the United States. In a world dominated by Wal*Mart, Target, and The Home Depot it’s hard to picture Sears atop the department store heap just a few decades ago.
The Sears store where I grew up – on the west side of Los Angeles – is not one of the 150 due to close its doors this year. That makes me happy. My Sears store is forever embedded in my childhood memories. It was where my mother clothed me and my four brothers. It was where my father bought appliances and a workshop full of Craftsman tools (most of which I’m sure he still has today). It was the brick-and-mortar embodiment of the Sears “wish book” – the wonderfully large and colorful catalog filled with 1960’s kids’ Christmas dreams. Last and perhaps most significantly, Sears was the location of the “Portrait Studio”, for which my family dutifully dressed up and posed every Christmas. One of my all-time favorite photos has all of my brothers standing smartly around the Sears-store Santa Claus, while I’m sitting in his lap bawling my two-year-old eyes out.
Sears would enter my life again somewhat unexpectedly, when I was in college studying to be an architect in the 1980’s. On several trips to Chicago my classmates and I visited the Sears Tower, the distinctive stair-stepped black skyscraper in the center of the Windy City. The Sears Tower was completed in 1973 as the tallest building in the world, and the first to use a “bundled-tube” structural design. Forty-three years later it is still the second-tallest in the Western Hemisphere (behind the recently-completed One World Trade Center in New York City).
Today’s Wall Street Journal article about Sears – which you can find here – includes dozens of reader comments more insightful than the article itself. The comments yearning for Sears’ glory days are clearly written by my peers. The comments blaming Sears’ demise on Amazon and other on-line retailers are largely from younger writers. In one particularly stinging but accurate account, Wade Harshman writes, “I still like the brand. I just don’t like waiting in line 20 minutes to buy a wrench because the one Sears rep is wrestling with a 1980 IBM machine and trying to sell an extended warranty on a $5 extension cord.”
If you Google “Sears Department Store”, you get the following up top:
It’s a sad statement when all four sub-links of the initial hit point to marked-down prices as the way to get you to buy at Sears. Then again this is senescent brick-and-mortar shopping we’re talking about. Montgomery Ward disappeared in 2001. K-Mart and J.C. Penny hang by a deteriorating thread. Even Macy’s reports “dreary” holiday sales, poised to close (another) 68 stores this year. Could Bloomingdale’s or Saks really be next?
Think about Sears and the disturbing/inevitable (take your pick) headlines of retail closings the next time you click your way to another on-line purchase. Future generations of shoppers may not even understand the meaning of “department store”.
8 thoughts on “Demise of the Department Store”
Nice remembrance Dave, but I have to ask – have you ever used senescent in conversation? 🙂
NEVER used that word or even heard it before today. I like it though. It could be used to describe me today after a poor night’s sleep 😦
Good article Dave. I haven’t read my WSJ yet. Sad news about Sears. When I was young we shopped at Sears, JC Penny and K-Mart. Now we have Meyers and Walmart in town. I will have to check and see if Sears is still there. I would like to find out if online sales were good over the holidays. Maybe sales were down “in general” both online and in department stores!
Craftsman tools are the only reason I go to Sears these days. In fact, I was there before Christmas assembling a bag of Craftsman tools for my daughter’s Christmas gift. May have more options now on where to buy them, but will miss going to the Santa Monica Store.
Since you seem to be reading the WSJ these days, maybe your next blog can be about Jack in the Box Tacos…
I would not have that much to say about JITB tacos but the comments from loyal consumers were priceless. 554 million per year- that’s a lot of “cat food”. I try to avoid JITB but full-confession I would never turn down a pair of tacos.
Funnily enough, I’ve been buying my Craftsman tools from Orchard Supply Hardware for a number of years now; the last Craftsman tool I bought at Sears was my table saw, I believe–probably 30 years ago. Craftsman tools have a lifetime warranty and you can still buy parts for them, so they have my loyalty. FYI Sears owned OSH for about 16 years; when Sears sold them to Lowes, OSH seems to have retained the right to sell Craftsman tools.
Boy, nothing says “Sears” to me more than the Wish Book. Assembling my Christmas list was easy; I just started with a blank piece of paper and the Wish Book, and not too long afterwards I had a nice long list of things I wanted from “Santa.” And then it was almost like going to heaven when Mom took us all to Sears to buy gifts for each other and for Mom and Dad–after which we then hung out in the toy department (in that particular Sears, during the holiday season, it was a separate building!) and dreamed about the toys we might get.
Sears has so much history and so much mystique–remember poring over those old catalogs from the 1800s and early 1900s?–they just have to figure out a way to survive. Macy’s is immortalized in “Miracle on 34th Street”, but in my mind of all the department stores out there, Sears is the one that says “America”. So many memories…so many _good_ memories…
Didn’t know about Sears’ past ties to OSH – love it. Like our Ace Hardware stores in Colorado I’m always a fan of the smaller, more local retail (i.e. avoid Home Depot whenever possible). Yes, great memory about our Sears having Christmas (and Santa) “in a separate building”. Wonder what they did with that space the rest of the year – gardening center?
I think it was auto parts. But I’m not sure about that.
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