A few weeks ago in this column, I lamented the loss of the Sears Wish Book. A lot of you were kind enough to share your memories of the Wish Book and my wife and I shared a few hours looking at them online. If you have been following the news in the last few days, you will have noticed that Sears has passed its time on life support and is likely to start liquidation proceedings in the next few weeks. I’m not going to bore you with the numbers and statistics or even a brief history of Sears. That stuff can be read in the real news.
Before Amazon was even a glimmer of a thought, Sears was a retail juggernaut. Sears revolutionized how America got merchandise. You could have pretty much anything under the sun delivered right to your house. You could also, for a time, get the house as well. When Sears made the leap from mail-order to brick-and-mortar stores, full-service stores sprouted like weeds. You could not drive far from home without finding a Sears store. If there was not a full-service location, there was a catalog store which had limited in-store merchandise, but a staff that would cheerfully process your catalog order right in the store. You could choose to pick up in-store or have your merchandise delivered. Sears made it easy for everyone. Easy, and affordable.
Working for Sears was an accomplishment. Employees remained with the company for decades. There was job security. There was a pension and a decent retirement. The stores were well staffed by people who were veritable experts on the products in their departments. The guys who worked with the Craftsman tools knew their way around a workbench. These were not mere clerks who took your money. I once met a woman in an appliance department who had started working at the store before I was born. She knew more about appliances and electronics than anyone I had ever met. She was a walking knowledge base.
As our culture changed, Sears was slow to catch on. Missing the boat on such things as modernizing stores and following trends would prove to be a slippery slope to becoming irrelevant in today’s marketplace. Sears was no longer the be-all-end-all for the family to find everything. Sears was plain. Sears was boring. Sears was, well, old. There was nothing exciting about Sears. The clothing departments were filled with clothes that were not terribly stylish or modern. Customers complained about quality and claimed the styles were outdated. Sears became known for swallowing otherwise well-known brands and sucking the life out of them. What Sears had done to make themselves new was making them seem tired instead. America found they could get what they used to get at Sears online. Well-known Sears proprietary brands were sold off and quality suffered. Kmart bought Sears and pretty soon Sears products were showing up at your local Kmart, which was having issues of its own. Kmart merchandise was showing up in Sears stores and Sears customers turned away, thinking if they wanted Kmart merchandise, they would go to Kmart.
For folks like us, this is akin to watching an elderly relative fade away. I remember going out with my grandfather, even when I was well into my late teens, and we would get dinner in the mall food court and walk around Sears. He loved the tool section and swore by Craftsman tools. Craftsman was the only brand he would use. I can’t recall if he ever used the legendary warranty, because I can’t recall any of the tools breaking. It didn’t matter if he bought anything, because we would walk the aisles together and he would tell me what each and every tool was used for. Occasionally, he would buy something small, like a screwdriver or a wrench, just to add it to the tool box.
“It’s better to have it and not need it,” he would say, “than to need it and not have it.”
Sears was America’s store. Woven deep within the fabric of this and the last century, Sears signified all that was strong with our nation. Perhaps we have seen its time come and go. For this columnist, losing Sears is like taking a star off of the American Flag.
Joe Weaver, a native of Baltimore, is a husband, father, pawnbroker and gun collector. From his home in New Bern, he writes on the lighter side of family life.