Mighty Sears is No More


“Let’s celebrate! Put on your Sunday best. We’re going to Sears!”
Mike Brady (actor Robert Reed), dad on the sitcom The Brady Bunch

I still remember our Mom taking us to the Sears store on East 10th Street in Sioux Falls, SD. It was back in the days of Ozzie and Harriett and Wally and the Beaver. We went shopping there for clothes, sheets and towels, and other of life’s essentials, but we got to look at the toys, too.

Our Mother, Marge, had only two hands (a lot of times as a single Mom, it seemed like she had more), so given there were three of us pests, one got to roam free like a loose puppy in a store full of bones. It was usually our sister, Carol, because Mom liked her best.

The Sioux Falls Sears store was a giant place, far from home in the North end of town. The ceilings went up to the sky and the aisles were wide and endless. People smiled and there was always a friendly Ajax-clean motherly clerk in a dress or a fatherly type in a razor-thin tie around every corner to show you the goods, and ring up your cash or check.

Need a hammer? Craftsman. Need a washer? Kenmore. Need some jeans? Levi’s. Need a new TV in a mahogany cabinet? Yeah, but can’t afford it.

Sears was the place to go and the place to be, better than JC Penney’s or Lewis Drug
or the Sunshine grocery store.

Sears was the crown jewel of family retail. It was an institution, a large mirror, reflecting Midwestern lifestyles, society and the culture of the times, orderly, disciplined, civic, and civil. The citizens of Sioux Falls, then about 60,000, and the largest population in three states, were hard working sorts at the Morrell meat packing plant or on farms; others were tradesmen or teachers like Marge.

We looked up to bankers, doctors, and lawyers. That was especially true for my brother and me. Gary and I carried their golf bags at Minnehaha Country Club. On a good weekend day, we each could take home anywhere from $3-$6, depending on tips, how much we blew on Coke and peanuts, and how much we won or lost playing pitch in the basement of the pro shop. They were our bread basket.

Still, the station in life didn’t matter. It seemed like everyone shopped at Sears or thumbed through the famous Sears catalog, from which you could buy everything from a screwdriver to a car, a baby buggy to a bicycle, and even a two-story pre-fab home. Sears homes are still around. There is one on Cheverly Avenue in Cheverly, MD, my former neighborhood after moving East.

Sears and Roebuck, headquartered in Chicago, was started as just a watch and jewelry catalog store by Richard Sears, from Spring Valley, MN and Alvah Roebuck, of Fayetteville, IN. Alvah’s share went to Julius Rosenwald of Chicago, IL a few years later. He in turn would turn Sears into the giant of the times.

Within two years the catalog had grown to 322 pages of one-stop shopping at predictable and competitive prices. Sound familiar? Jeff Bezos must have taken a page from the catalog.

Sears opened its first store in Chicago around 1925 and soon after another store in Evansville, IN. By 1933 it had expanded its catalog with the magical Christmas Wishbook that was all the gift my sister ever wanted. It was full of toys and cut-out images.

The company went on to become America’s largest retailer, a mass-merchandising miracle of capitalism. At its peak, it operated 4,000 stores, according to ABC News.

“Sears dominated the rural retail market through its huge catalog, an amazing work of product advertising, consumer education, and corporate branding.” Vicki Howard wrote in Smithsonian.com last year. “It educated millions of shoppers about mail-order procedures, such as shipping, cash payment, substitutions and returns. It used simple and informal language and a warm, welcoming tone. “We solicit honest criticism more than orders,” the 1908 catalog stated, emphasizing customer satisfaction above all else. Sears taught Americans how to shop.”

Sears expanded throughout the 20th Century crossing the borders into Canada and Mexico. It got into credit cards, insurance, investment banking, and real estate. A former Sears executive, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, said the expansion into those other businesses contributed to its undoing.

By 1990 the company was showing signs of wear. That year, Walmart replaced it as the largest retailer in the world. Years later the Catalog was put on the shelf for the last time, and after that, the company moved from its proud skyscraper in Chicago Sears Tower into the suburbs.

It was in 2005 that an investment guru named Eddie Lampert, who had bought K-Mart a few years earlier, merged K-Mart with Sears.

Lampert is a fast-talking entrepreneur who, as legend has it, actually talked his kidnappers into letting him buy them off. He is among the most prominent yet reclusive hedge fund operators in the country, running Sears and his ESL hedge fund from his compound in Florida.

Lampert was accused from the beginning of buying K-Mart and Sears just to cannibalize them, separating and selling off their many valuable appendages, especially quality brand names and real estate. The rumors turned out to be false.

Lampert dumped hundreds of millions of dollars of his “own” money into the retailer in what appeared to be a sincere effort to save and transform the icon. He is today its major stockholder and biggest creditor.

This year, Sears lost $600 million in just one quarter, making suppliers too nervous to extend more credit. Sears’ problems were compounded by the changing economic and physical landscape of shopping malls all across the country, many of which were anchored on one corner by a Sears store. They are no longer the mercantile mecca they once were.

Lampert’s strategy was apparently to go back to the future by turning the Sears brick and mortar giant into an online retail powerhouse, in a way what it once was with catalogs, the predecessor to online shopping.

But Lampert put little elbow grease into the stores and it showed. Walking into a Sears store in our area was enough to make a grown man cry. The shelves were half empty. Clothes were stuffed together on racks, some of the cash registers didn’t work, the sales personnel were not happy, nor very accommodating. The smile was gone and instead of the clean-cut look, clerks were dressed in black casual.

One hundred years later, Sears was a mirror that reflected an entirely different retail environment and a vastly different culture.

I am no expert on retail–although I did consultant and lobbying work for the company, and in one of my first jobs I sold tools part-time. I’m not even a skilled shopper. I get taken all the time. I am sure the downfall of the company is a tale of financial and marketing complexities.

But I do know this: Sears had a massive and very loyal following for a century or more. People went to the stores and ordered from the catalog because the products were priced well and it was a no-frills middle class shopping experience that separated Sears from the higher end stores.

More important were the intangibles: Sears was part of the family; it was trusted, comfortable, and reliable. There was a personal connection you lose online. That is why, I am sure, my grandparents took my Mom and her brothers to Sears and why my Mom took us to Sears and why I took my children there (my daughter Kate says it smelled like tires).

To paraphrase the Gipper, we didn’t abandon Sears; Sears abandoned us.

Sears may come out of bankruptcy, a shell of its former self, but as an institution, it is gone forever. I won’t be renewing my Master Protection Agreement or cashing in on my $20 online credit.

Good thing Mom is not around to see this. We’d have to hold her hand.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.