Sears, R.I.P.



In the late 1800’s, Richard Warren Sears worked as a railroad train agent in Minnesota. After receiving a shipment of unwanted watches he’d purchased from a jeweler, he resold them to other agents, repeated the process, ultimately beginning a mail order business with his wares.

Soon, he moved to Chicago, and met Alvah C. Roebuck, where they expanded their line, and began publishing catalogs in 1888. By 1894, the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog featured everything from sewing machines to automobiles. The product line continued to expand into the early 1900’s, as did sales. By 1908, catalogs included appliances, home furnishings, toys, sporting goods, and even “kit houses.”

Rural America was the underpinning of the Sears and Roebuck mail order business, but in the 1920’s, stores began dotting the American landscape. Sears added Allstate Insurance to its lineup, and developed its own brands such as Craftsman, Kenmore and DieHard, eventually adding Coldwell Banker real estate, the Discover credit card, and erecting the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Sears was on top of the retail world, literally and figuratively.

I have very fond memories of the now fallen giant. Sears was the go-to store when I was a child, certainly far swankier than the drug store on the square with the soda fountain. I recall the smells. The Sears in my hometown of Marietta, Georgia featured a large case, filled with nuts which were kept warm. The scents were tantalizing, and my mother would usually purchase a package of cashews, which were almost better than the toys.

And my father would frequent the hardware department to the rear of the store. I’m not sure if he knew they sold the nuts or not. He bought the other kind, as well as assorted lawn mower or tiller parts.

But the king of books for me was the Christmas catalog, the most treasured selection on the bookshelf. I would carefully circle the toys I coveted sometime between Halloween and Christmas, leaving the hallowed, dog-eared book lying around with my conspicuous notations. I remember circling train sets, the “Operation” game, Rock-Em Sock-Em Robots, bicycles, and the glorious electronic football game which consumed ten minutes of time, as I lined up all my players before running a play.

Who cared about the drapes, mattress sets and, uh, ladies wear?

Meanwhile, in rural Arkansas, some man named Sam was toiling away in his small-town Ben Franklin Five and Dime, and no one peering out of the massive tower in Chicago could see what was on the horizon: Goliath was about to fall.

Eventually, the giant began flailing away during its epic descent, with bankruptcies, shuttering of brands, and a bad marriage to the pitiful KMart brand. From a peak of 3500 stores, 2016 ended with fewer than 1500. Sears also killed the beloved catalog, in 1993.

The writing is on the wall, and has been for a long time. An American original is about to bite the dust. Times change, markets change, the way people purchase goods change. Who wants to fight mall traffic, when the same items are a mere click away?

Sears had its WalMart, but if it’s any vindication for them, WalMart has its Amazon.

I recently bought a big jug of cashews during a monthly run to the local Costco, and I can stick them in the (non-Kenmore) microwave if I want to.  I probably could have ordered them online. I probably can order just about anything online. I cannot remember the last time I was in a mall. I think it was to get an eye exam, but I do that now at Costco. Malls are for walking in the winter time, but not shopping.

Like so many fond childhood memories, Sears and Roebuck will be gone with the wind.

I’ll have to order my next electronic football game on Amazon.


© Copyright 2017 Tim Holcombe


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