Friday, December 4, 2015
The Big Store no more
Sears appears to be on its last legs. It managed to survive Wal-Mart, although suffering a greatly reduced stature in the process. Now it seems unable to keep up with the fast-changing world of Internet sales that has undermined the whole concept of "The Big Store," with cheap deals and fast deliveries.
The Internet replaced the big catalog, which in Sears' case was the size of a phone book. One used to look forward to this catalog being delivered to the doorstep decades ago, as it offered a veritable cornucopia of shopping delights from scantily clad lingerie models to the latest in automotive repair tools. It gave way to mass mailings in the 90s, opting for smaller specialty catalogs like its Craftsman catalog and Christmas Wish Book.
It's no great loss when you think about it. The Big Store has become a dinosaur. Macy's is similarly limping along. It's Thanksgiving Day Parade about the only thing that continues to give the New York-based department store name recognition, as well as its little spat with the Donald this summer.
At one time, Sears used to anchor shopping malls around the country, with the proliferation of specialty stores in an attempt to mimic historic downtown shopping centers, which Sears and its main rival JC Penny helped destroy. Sears began as a stand alone department store in Evansville, Indiana, in 1925, with pretty much everything you wanted under one roof. It fashioned its own name brands, such as its exclusive lines of clothing from Toughskins to Cheryl Tiegs, along with Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools.
The Sears brand faded away long ago, as shoppers opted for more popular brands. Sears bought Kmart and pretty much adopted the same model of offering the more popular brands. Craftsman tools remained as they were considered one of the better brands when it came to automotive repair, but other Sears brands became extinct. You can hunt their archives for them.
At one time, Sears was a real innovator. Back in the first half of the 20th century, the company offered an amazing variety of pre-fabricated homes. My mother lived in the Winona model in the Green Lake area of Seattle, Washington. Over 70,000 of these catalog homes were sold before the outbreak of WWII, when this division was shelved. It is surprising that they didn't try to jump start it after the war when there was a great housing boom, but the Sears Catalog Home was no more.
For decades now, Sears seems to be a day late and a dollar short. Donald Katz wrote of the many strategies to try to restart this company in The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution of Sears. He understudied his book by working at the iconic Hicksville Sears, in New York, learning all the tricks of the trade. Not many others have chosen to write about Sears, as it has become increasingly irrelevant in today's consumer world. I suppose when it finally does close its doors, there will be a bit of nostalgia. Their items will become big hits on ebay for compulsive collectors. Their vintage catalogs already fetch some big prices.
It's a Darwinian consumer world and you have to constantly adapt your strategies to the ever-changing consumerist society, which Sears hasn't done. Next stop, La Brea Tar Pits.