I was very distressed to read a recent article on Salon about Sears teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Actually, it’s a story that I’ve seen repeatedly over the last five or ten years. Sears is indeed having serious problems. Its sales figures and profit have been in free fall in recent years, facing wilting competition from Walmart, Kohl’s and other department stores. In an age of “niche” retailers, Sears has failed to carve out a defined place for itself. It’s not the bargain store like Walmart, it’s not the hardware store like Home Depot or Lowe’s, it’s not the clothing store like Dillard’s or Macy’s, or the home store like Bed, Bath and Beyond, it is not the high-volume store like Costco and it is not the mail order store like Amazon. Sears has tried to be the “everything under one roof” store but has not been successful in carving out a successful and distinguished niche in the retail community. However, if Sears does eventually fail and closes all its stores, I will be very sad. Sears has been part of my life for many years, in fact for all of them.
The arrival of the new spring and summer or the new fall and winter Sears mail-order catalog was a huge event in the family when I was young. The appearance of the annual Christmas catalog, thinner but so very exciting to leaf through, and thoroughly tattered by the time the holiday itself finally came, was another important moment in our family life. These catalogs were indeed the “dream books” in our home, always perched in a prominent place for convenient access and easy perusal.
And the catalog was not only a “dream book” but a helpful and readily available price reference. If you were trying to find out how much something cost, even though Sears was not to be the source of the purchase, there it was, pictured in the catalog, with a reliable median price attached.
The Sears Catalog had serious competition in my childhood from the catalogs of Montgomery Ward and to a lesser degree from Spiegel. It was a sad day when they both closed mail order operations and their catalogs stopped coming, because they too always afforded a goodly share of childhood dreams. Sears’ mail order business lasted a little longer but it too eventually stopped, apparently for good in 1993.
It was so exciting to actually order some items from Sears and wait for the order to arrive. When the order did come, securely wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with twine, or in a plain brown box, it seemed like Christmas right there and then, regardless of the actual time of year. My father even used to order his baby chicks through the Sears catalog. One hundred fluffy cheeping little chicks would arrive in an excelsior-lined four compartment cardboard box with air holes punched in the sides, from Sears, mind you.
Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs played an important historical and economic role in the late 19th and early 20th centuries especially in rural American by breaking the hold of the local “general store” on customers. Finally a plethora of “ready made” items became readily available for a set price and with a “money back” guarantee. There was little that the catalogs of the day did not contain and remarkably at one point, Sears was selling a package of pre-engineered and precut materials for a complete house, even featuring several different models from which to choose.
When I was fifteen years old, while in North Dakota for the summer with my grandmother Baxstrom and aunt Ruth and working for my Uncle Clarence, I conducted the greatest Sears catalog mail order in my memory. The order consisted of a pair of dream-come-true engineer boots, replete with big heel, oiled black leather, round toe, strap and buckle over the foot, and a strip of metal embedded in the back to keep the high top straight. Also in this order was a chambray shirt, always the perfect color and fabric to wear with bluejeans, and a nice light blue sweatshirt with warm fleece inside. Maybe the most striking item, next to the engineer boots, was a sleek pair of “Roebucks” jeans, made of heavy 11 ounce denim material and featuring their distinctive upward curved top front pockets and keystone-shaped center belt loop in the back. I don’t remember a pair of jeans ever fitting as well as these great “Roebucks”. I certainly enjoyed swaggering around in my stylish new jeans, chambray shirt, and engineer boots, waiting for a comely member of the opposite sex to notice me. (They never did, but I could dream!)
One of the aspects of Sears that I remember most vividly, was its own quality brands of categories of merchandise. The “JC Higgins” brand of outdoor and sports equipment always meant sterling quality and fair price. The first fishing reel I ever owned was a JC Higgins model for $1.99, that was later attached to a JC Higgins metal fishing rod from my father. A dream never realized was a JC Higgins bicycle sporting a large “tank” with fake portholes mounted in the cross bars and a spring loaded front fork, that I must have looked at hundreds of times in the catalog. Actually quite cumbersome by today’s standards, this bike was then to me the “Cadillac” of bicycles and would have certainly dazzled all of my friends, had I been fortunate enough to own one.
One dream finally attained but cut a little short was the saving for and eventual purchase of a top of the line JC Higgins baseball fielder’s mitt from Sears. It was the perfect size and shape, with leather lining and the thumb and finger loops in just the right places and when broken in, was unbelievable at scooping up infield grounders or snaring fly balls in the outfield. But my little brother Richard borrowed it (with my blessing) to take on a school outing where a ball game was to be played and accidentally left it there, lost forever, now the valued possession of the lucky finder. Richard was so upset about his carelessness and losing his big brother’s prized ball glove, that I really couldn’t get very angry with him. But I was certainly saddened at the loss of such a prized and valued possession as this marvelous example of quality JC Higgins sporting goods.
Other Sears brands come readily to mind. “Silvertone” radios were a permanent and prized part of childhood. And of course Silvertone televisions came along as well, although their price precluded their presence in our modest household. The “Silvertone” brand was applied to a range of high quality Sears musical instruments as well, mainly a line of guitars although I think my sister Barbara played a Silvertone clarinet.
And of course another famous Sears brand was “Allstate”, first applied to the lines of tires sold by Sears and then to insurance, when Sears decided to sell auto insurance through its mail order service. Allstate insurance maintained a lofty reputation and still uses its “you’re in good hands” theme in present day advertising. Allstate remained part of the Sears operation until 1993 when it was spun off as an publicly owned independent company.
Other trusted Sears brands that have always meant extraordinary quality, are Kenmore and Craftsman. The Kenmore brand of appliances has always connoted great value and lasting utility and I have never owned a Kenmore appliance, from refrigerators to washers and dryers, that ever disappointed. And I have to say the same for Craftsman tools. They have always been of the highest quality, whether made in the US as they used to be in my childhood, or made primarily in China as they are now, and have never failed me. And if they did, there’s the famous Craftsman lifetime warrantee, which now may actually be in doubt, for earlier this year, it was reported that Sears had sold its Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker for almost a billion dollars, to raise the cash it needs to survive additional store closings and declining revenue. And of course the fabled Sears DieHard batteries have earned a well deserved reputation of superb reliability, always ranking among the most reliable batteries in Consumer Reports tests.
I myself am the proud owner of a Craftsman riding mower which I bought because of the reasonable price and consistent high reliability ratings. Easy to maintain and repair with readily available replacement parts, it has served me well mowing my acre of Vermont grass every week or so during the summer months.
So indeed if Sears does ultimately go the way of Mervyn’s, another chain of stores, headquartered on the west coast, that I still miss greatly here in Arizona, what will happen to these trusted brands? Kmart, whose parent company is now Sears Holdings and Ace Hardware, both sell Craftsman tools. If Sears and Kmart both finally fail, I assume that the new owner of Craftsman, Stanley Black & Decker, will carry on. And how about the Kenmore brand? Kenmore appliances are made by a variety of other manufacturers including Whirlpool, Bosch and others, so this trusted brand may simply disappear. But this will be a serious loss because Sears has made sure over the years that the Kenmore brand means quality, value and dependability, regardless of who the manufacturer was.
I hope Sears never leaves us and that its corporate heads find a proper niche for it and keep it going. Because if it does go under, it will be not only a loss for shoppers like me, who have always trusted Sears and the Sears trademarks, but it will be a serious cultural loss for the entire country because “Sears” and “Sears, Roebuck and Company” have deservedly earned true iconic status in our country and its history.