Previous posts in this discussion:
PostYes, It's the Sears Tower (David Duggan, USA, 06/22/14 5:34 am)
In response to JE's comment (see John Heelan, 21 June), Chicagoans still call it the Sears Tower.
JE comments: So do I--I was yankin' John Heelan's chain. Until the 1980s, every American kid knew Sears and his friend Roebuck as the default store at back-to-school time. But what is a Willis? Do not confuse it with Willys (pronounced the same, not Willeez), a manufacturing icon in Toledo, Ohio, best remembered as the inventors of the Jeep. (Willys became part of Kaiser, then American Motors, then Renault, then Chrysler, then Daimler-Chrysler, and now it's owned by Fiat. Jeeps still look the same, though.)
Sears used to be the #1 retailer, and it owned the world's tallest building. Now the Tower is sold and S & R is barely clinging to life. This makes me sad.
Decline and Fall of Sears; from Ric Mauricio
(John Eipper, USA
06/23/14 4:44 AM)
JE: In response to our recent discussion on fallen retail giant Sears, Roebuck, and Co., Ric Mauricio sends these thoughts:
Yes, the decline of Sears is sad indeed. I enjoyed being a salesperson for Sears, which was a step towards becoming a stockbroker for that company's Dean Witter division. Dean Witter was eventually sold off to Morgan Stanley. But I understood the dynamics of why Sears's retail presence depreciated. When the top management came down from their Sears Ivory Tower, they always announced their visits, so that the managers of each store could beef up retail personnel on the floor and clean and organize the shelves, so that what the top execs saw was a quite rosy picture; not at all the reality of not being able to find knowledgeable and helpful sales help.
Today, Lempert has all but given up on turning the Sears retail presence around (don't even get me started on the acquisition of K-Mart; that was like Carly Fiorina's Hewlett Packard takeover of Compaq). Instead, he is selling off parts. First spinoff was Land's End (symbol: LE). Perhaps Berkshire Home Services will buy the Sears Home Services business, and Mr. Buffett, being the smart negotiator, will probably be able to get the Sears Extended Warranties company thrown into the deal for free. Diehard batteries (oh, wow, did I sell a ton of those) might be sold to Interstate. Kenmore might be sold to Haier (yes, the Chinese appliance manufacturer itching to get a foothold in the US market), and Craftsman (I loved selling Craftsman, tools and lawnmowers) could probably be sold to Home Depot or Lowe's, or even one of the tool manufacturers like Ryobi.
But the big value of Sears is the real estate. They are sitting on about 2% of US retail space. In fact, they have already spun off 200 properties into Seritage, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sears. So Sears Holdings will perhaps 10 years from now be a REIT.
JE comments: Sears has turned into a jalopy sold off for parts. As much as it pains me to say it, the stores in my city give off a vibe from the 1980s or even earlier. Dated, but not in a cool, retro way. The Sears of Adrian closed down three or four years ago. Kenmore, Craftsman, Diehard--these are the last gasps of a once-great company. I'll say it again: this is sad.
More Sears Nostalgia
(Randy Black, USA
06/23/14 10:27 AM)
I have enjoyed in a sad, wistful way, John Eipper's and Ric Mauricio's laments regarding Sears Roebuck's ongoing slow demise (see their posts from 22 and 23 June).
If it were not for Sears, and a few other part-time college jobs, I would not have been able to afford my final two years of J-school at Texas Tech.
Sears gave me the opportunity to sell cameras, fishing and golf equipment to the goat ropers who came into the store in Lubbock between 1967 and 1969 when I graduated. I recall that I earned the federal minimum wage in 1968, $1.60 an hour, for about 18-20 hours per week that I worked when I was not in classes or on the golf course.
To give you an idea of my expenses, my food budget during my senior year at Texas Tech was $25 per month and the rent on my little off-campus 2-room apartment was $30 per month, bills paid. I even sold my blood about once a month for $10 per visit to the local blood bank. Coupled with what I could win fleecing the hackers at the local public golf course and money from my photography job shooting frat parties on weekends, I made do by staying busy. I rented out my car to other students on the terms that they left the tank full. Gas was in the 34 cents per gallon range, and it held ten gallons.
Interesting historical note: Apparently, it cost Sears more than it was worth to print checks for the tiny amounts that I took home after taxes. Thus, all part-time Sears workers were paid in cash in a little brown envelope. My supervisor told me that their feedback demonstrated that such cash payments were done not only to save printing a paper check but to encourage the part-timers to spend their cash before they even got out of the store.
Over the past 50+ years, I've owned a garage-full of Craftsman tools, a half dozen Kenmore clothes washers and dryers, at least three Kenmore refrigerators, a couple of food freezers, an air compressor, a table saw, a router, you name it: I've bought it at Sears.
When I purchased my first new car, a 1965 Mustang, it came with no air conditioner. For $2359, the only option included in the price was an AM radio. It was the small 6-cylinder, three on the floor model. Red interior, white body, no air conditioner.
Sears to the rescue. Two years later in Lubbock, as a college student and Sears employee, they extended me the necessary credit to get that little car an add-on AC unit that was a Godsend in summertime in Lubbock and later in Palm Desert, California where I moved after graduation. When that little sports car finally gave up the ghost about six years later, that AC unit was still working, even if the car was not. Diehard batteries, oil changes, tires, fan belts, hoses, spark plugs, it all was Sears. That Mustang had more than 130,000 miles on it when the engine finally cried "Uncle." The day the engine cratered, the AC was still cranking out cold air on yet another trip between Indio and Dallas.
Sears may eventually go the way of their mail order catalogue, but I still use my very first set of Craftsman socket wrenches that my grandfather gave me for my 15th birthday, and a whole bunch of other "guy" stuff.
JE comments: I hope our non-US colleagues will forgive this bit of nostalgia, but Sears used to be an American icon--up there with baseball, hot dogs, and that car company whose name I don't remember.
Craftsman tools were/are too good: they never break, and when they do, they are replaced for free. This builds great brand equity, but it's a terrible business model. (My Craftsman socket wrench set is probably twenty years old, and still looks good as new.)
Sears Nostalgia in Brazil
(Joe Listo, Brazil
06/24/14 4:09 AM)
No need to apologize to non-US WAISers in the case of Sears (see JE's remarks of 23 June). The company was a huge icon in Brazil during the 1960s. Friends my age still fondly remember and miss this great organization.
Sadly, the company closed doors in 1983. Buying at Sears was quite an experience, almost an adventure back then. Sears was years ahead of the competition. People were in awe when it displayed a power boat on its showroom (first company to display such a huge item), right next to a long line of US-made bicycles that were the dream of every teenager. Their Kenmore line of products was impressive. My mother bought a Kenmore washer that worked like a dream and lasted more than thirty years.
And there were also snacks, amongst which a delightful salty peanut they sold in small paper bags that one would eat like there was no tomorrow. But Sears´s cherry on the cake was the Blue Room, a well decorated ballroom they rented for birthday parties and other gatherings. Having your birthday party at the Sears Blue Room would set you apart from the crowd, as it was quite fancy at the time, not to mention expensive.
Sears was based in Rio de Janeiro, where it owned a large building which today houses the Botafogo Praia Mall. Its São Paulo store was bought by real estate investors, who erected yet another mall named Shopping Paulista. Although hundreds of world-class names are represented in today´s Brazil, nothing can compare with the experience of buying at Sears. I really wish the company could make a turn-around.
JE comments: Great to hear from you, Joe, and thank you for the memory. While it's gone in Brazil, Sears still thrives in Mexico, where it is owned by Grupo Carso, part of the empire of the world's second richest man, Carlos Slim Helú. Sears enjoys a prestige in Mexico that it lost long ago in the US, so like Woolworth's in Mexico, I suspect it will survive the likely demise of the parent company.
Now that I have your ear, Joe, I hope you'll send a report on World Cup fever. And congratulations on Brazil's victory yesterday over Cameroon.
- Sears and Mustang Memories; from Ric Mauricio (John Eipper, USA 06/24/14 4:51 AM)
JE: Sears veteran Ric Mauricio sends this comment:
I enjoyed Randy Black's as well as John Eipper's walk down Memory Lane (23 June), especially when Randy started quoting those prices. Randy earned the $1.60 minimum wage in 1968. My minimum wage at Sears in 1980 was $3.00. That is a 5.4% inflation rate during those 12 years. However, since we are now at $7.50 minimum wage (around that; it differs with each state), that is only a 2.7% inflation rate for the minimum wage from 1980 to today. So, either wage inflation has slowed down for minimum-wage workers, or they are getting royally screwed.
Fortunately, I was able to work myself into a commission position at Sears. Besides the 2% commission on anything I sold, they gave us a quota which we had to meet. I asked HR what would happen if I met my quota. They told me I would get a 25 cent raise. Hmm, the wheels started turning, what if I doubled my quota? Then you would get a 50 cent raise. Tripled, 75 cent raise. OK, so now in addition to my basic salary of $3/hour, I would get 2% of my sales (so $100 of sales per hour would equate to $2 extra per hour), and every six months I would get a review of my quota and a raise. So for the next two years, every six months, I tripled my quota, and ended up making close to $12 per hour, four times the minimum wage. Then all the commission salespeople got called to HR for a meeting on quotas. Sears revised the rules. They froze our wages right where they were at. Adiós, amigos. You took away my incentive. So now I was ready to become a stockbroker.
I too had a Mustang, and one of my biggest regrets in life was selling it. It was a 1968 California Special with a 289 V8. Groan! I've also amassed a array of Craftsman tools throughout the years; my mechanic uncle had a gas station and gave me his Craftsman tools after he retired, 50 years ago. No Snap-On or MAC Tools then. So, John, are you saying that building such durable products is a bad business model? I believe Dodge had the same dilemma; their cars were built too well. But don't Toyota and Mercedes boast the same reputation?
Yes, Craftsman tools rarely broke. Reminds me of the time when a customer brought in a broken screwdriver and the salesperson started arguing with him that since he utilized it in a way that it wasn't designed to be used, he could not get a new screwdriver. I finally couldn't stand it, stepped into the discussion, looked at the sku on the screwdriver, told the salesperson to get another one, and exchanged the new screwdriver for the broken one. Happy customer. I explained afterwards to the salesperson that the screwdriver cost us 50 cents and that by honoring the guarantee, that customer will probably buy $100 more worth of Craftsman tools. And he will tell his son, who will tell his grandson.
Now there's an idea; selling Sears products through Amazon or better yet, through Alibaba. The Chinese have our Hummer; they love our Buicks, they buy our Apple phones and iPads, they eat our KFC, pizzas (as in Pizza Hut), and hamburgers (McDonalds and Burger King). Why not Craftsman tools?
JE comments: Isn't it the other way around--we buy China's Apple phones?
Toyota and M-B have built their reputations on quality, but there's one key difference: unlike with Craftsman tools, you don't get a free Toyota when your old one breaks.
I hope WAISers have enjoyed our trip down Sears & Roebuck Memory Lane. This all began with John Heelan's reference to the Sears Tower, and my cheeky response about the name change. Will WAISers of the future be sharing their Willis nostalgia? What you talkin' about...?
- Another Sears Memory (Miles Seeley, USA 06/23/14 4:00 PM)
My contribution to the Sears Roebuck story:
My grandfather and his two brothers left the farm near Ypsilanti, Michigan and started a small manufacturing plant to make dashboard instruments (gas gauge, temperature, oil pressure, etc.) for GM and Ford, invented by a man named King (who was mentally ill and later died in an asylum). In World War II, they made torpedo and submarine instruments for the US Navy. After the war they switched over to making Craftsman tools for Sears. About ten years later Sears canceled the contract, saying in effect they were too well made and durable, and Sears lost money on them. My grandfather refused to make them cheaper, and that was that.
JE comments: So even Craftsman tools can be too good! It used to be that if Sears didn't sell it, you didn't need it: this included complete automobiles and even mail-order houses. (Mike Bonnie is next in line with his Sears contribution.)
Miles: I drove past Ypsilanti today, on my way to the dentist in Ann Arbor. It made me think of Rosie the Riveter, Ypsilanti's most famous resident. She came up on WAIS last fall:
Memories of Sears in Philadelphia
(Edward Jajko, USA
06/24/14 4:27 AM)
Philadelphia, city of my birth and early years until my first big job and marriage, was the site of a massive and imposing Sears, Roebuck office and warehouse building on Roosevelt Boulevard (US Rte 1).
A first cousin of mine worked there for a number of years, and I used to drive by that building several times a week. Now it is gone, a vacant space against the sky, in an area and a city that is somewhat in decline.
But my Sears story is this: my late best friend, also named Ed, used to shop in Sears a lot, buying tools and other gear. He told me, and this had to be 40 years ago, that he was in a Sears store once, browsing the shelves, when another customer came up to him and asked him where he might find product X. Ed told him, and the man thanked him and was about to move off, when Ed asked him a question: Had the gentleman thought that Ed was a Sears employee because he was ignoring the gentleman? After a moment's thought, the man said that yes, that was indeed so.
That was a story Ed and I laughed about for years.
JE comments: The Sears customer non-service was legendary. It still might be. My mother hasn't returned to Sears since she contracted to have a gas cooking range installed in a rental property in the early 1980s. The out-the-door price turned out to be much higher than the Sears estimate. This bait-and-switch was probably the fault of the contractor, but since the Sears store washed its hands of the problem, it ended up losing a life-long customer.
The retail flagship of Philadelphia was John Wanamaker's, one of the first great department stores. (I just learned that Wanamaker innovations included the price tag and cash refunds on returns.) On Saturday I walked past the Wanamaker's store on Chestnut Street. It's now--how blasphemous--a Macy's, but at least it was spared the fate of downtown Detroit's gargantuan Hudson's: detonation. Hudson's stores are now Macy's, too.
- Decline and Fall of Sears; on Catalog Retailers (Mike Bonnie, USA 06/24/14 3:28 AM)
Sears (and railroads) received mention yesterday (23 June), on a National Public Radio program in discussion of so-called "smart phones" and Internet retailers including Amazon, Google, eBay and a host of others. "The first Sears catalog was published in 1888. By 1894, the Sears catalog had grown to 322 pages, featuring sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, automobiles (produced from 1905 to 1915 by Lincoln Motor Car Works of Chicago, not related to the current Ford line), and a host of other new items."
Although less diversified in product lines, Spiegel was not far behind, and by 1997 it peaked $3.06 billion in sales. "Founded in April 1865, Spiegel is a leading US direct marketing retailer of apparel, accessories and footwear. Spiegel mailed its first mail order catalog to women across America in 1905, and just 20 years later, the fashion and furniture retailer had 10 million customers." Following bankruptcy and reorganization in 2003, Spiegel changed owners three times within ten years and now focuses on digital media and television promotions. A spring 2014 catalog is available."
Coming soon to a smart phone near you will be shares of stock in the largest of the large Internet retailers, Alibaba, the Hangzhou, China-based web portal. Sales of stock shares in the US are expected to exceed Facebook's $16 billion offering in 2012.
Shopping malls, love them or hate them, I sense danger in the demise of "post" stores such as Sears. With access to Peapod.com, anyone can live a nearly germ-free life.
JE comments: What Amazon basically did was put the Sears and Spiegel retail model on the computer. One wonders why the catalog behemoths were unable to make the transition themselves.
This marks me as a yokel, but I fondly remember the Sears Christmas "Wish Book"--it wasn't "Holiday" back then. That was how you shopped and wished for Christmas when you lived in the boondocks. (Louisiana, Missouri had a Sears Catalog Store downtown, a tiny shop that took your orders, which you picked up in a week or so. They would also return items for you if they didn't fit.)
This young wisher is about my age. I just did a ten-minute flip through Google images, and it seems that until the late 1980s, the WB covers featured Aryan children only:
- Decline and Fall of Sears; on Catalog Retailers (Mike Bonnie, USA 06/24/14 3:28 AM)
- Sears and Mustang Memories; from Ric Mauricio (John Eipper, USA 06/24/14 4:51 AM)
- Sears Nostalgia in Brazil (Joe Listo, Brazil 06/24/14 4:09 AM)
- More Sears Nostalgia (Randy Black, USA 06/23/14 10:27 AM)