Department Stores: Where America No Longer Shops

Sears2

It hit the news awhile back that most, if not all, of the traditional department stores had a bad Christmas season and are hurting.  Still.  Sears seems to be the worst off, to the point where it has sold off one of its crown jewels, the Craftsman tool line.  I am not sure how much longer they can last, because they seem to cater to a way of shopping that is fast disappearing in our society.  Which makes me a little sad.

WolfandDessauer-crop

In my very young youth, going to a department store was a big deal.  Every major city had at least one of its own, and in Fort Wayne, ours was Wolf & Dessaur.  Like all self-respecting department stores, it was downtown.  And unlike most of them, it built a brand new downtown building in 1959, showing an optimism that the 1960s would be better than ever.  But the 1960s were not better than ever, at least for downtown retail.  A mere seven years later W&D passed up the opportunity to anchor the new suburban mall being built, a chance grabbed by the much larger L. S. Ayres & Co. from Indianapolis.  Ayres gobbed up the failing W&D soon after.

Ayres (one of perhaps four major department stores from Indianapolis) eventually sold out to a larger chain and was eventually rebranded as Macys, a New York store made famous nationwide in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street.

Being dragged out to a department store by your mother was not so bad in those days, because department stores had, like, actual departments.  It was probably around age 7 or 8 when I was able to announce to my mother “If you need me, I will be in the toy deparment.”  It was a great place to browse, and if I played my cards right I could occasionally carry something of my own choosing home.  As late as the early ’70s my mother bought a lawn mower from Ayres (Lawn & Garden Department) and I still remember the necktie-wearing salesman explaining the foundational differences between the four cycle Toro and the two cycle Lawn Boy.  Mom bought the Toro.

But our local department stores were put to shame by the national giants like Sears, Montgomery Ward and J C Penney.  Even then I knew that the national chain stores sold things cheaper, and were the place to go when you were trying to stretch a dollar.  We shopped most often at Wards then, because its location was the most convenient.  Summertime shopping was always made more fun by the display of room fans, several of which were set up to keep plastic beach balls spinning in midair.  My father bought more than one room air conditioner from Wards, as well as a chainsaw.

Sears, however, was the 800 pound gorilla of the retail world.  Earlier in the century they had sold cars and even houses.  But even though those product lines were long gone by the 1960s, you could buy almost anything else.  My father, when he first became interested in boating on area lakes, bought a used late 1960s speedboat with a 45 horsepower outboard motor – both of which proudly wore the Sears Roebuck brand.

As I got a little older, I became a Sears shopper myself when it came to buying tools.  Everyone knew that Sears Craftsman hand tools were the gold standard of consumer grade tools.  Who could resist the lure of the lifetime, no questions asked guarantee.  What teenage boy would not fall for a deal where no matter how badly you misused or abused a tool, you could get a new one for free if it failed to stand up to what you dished out?  And everyone knew that when you wanted the best battery you could get for your car there was no choice but a Sears DieHard.

In the ’90s we had a couple of the portraits of our young children taken at the photography studio at our local Sears store.  My only quibble was with the genius who decided to set up the photography location within the store.  Trying to get three young children to sit still and smile when all they wanted to do was make a break for the lawn tractors on the other side of the aisle required some Grade A parenting.

Even in recent years Sears was a place to seriously consider if you were looking for major appliances.  After looking at several places, we liked the Sears Kenmore appliances best when we were updating our kitchen.  Yes, we knew that the same basic appliances were sold under the GE or Whirlpool brands and that other manufacturers offered a more upscale image, but the Sears variants came in a combination of styling, features and price that we found appealing.

Nothing lasts forever and Sears’ popularity with large numbers of shoppers seems to fit within that category.  I suppose that much of Sears’ modern trouble is my fault.  How long has it been since I have walked into a Sears store and bought something?  I have no idea, perhaps two or three years?  And I think I have a lot of company.  Wal Mart is cheaper (and more convenient), the traditional department stores offer better quality and specialty big box stores offer a better selection than most of Sears’ departments do now.  That middle ground of moderate quality at a moderate price seems to have all but disappeared.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight it is hard to see how Sears missed the gigantic wave of e-retailing.  Wasn’t Sears the Amazon.com of a hundred years ago?  The Sears Catalog was the analog version of the point and click shopping that we all take for granted today.  The products may have taken a little longer to make it to the front door, but the basic model was much the same.  Isn’t it interesting how brick and mortar stores (especially in malls) killed the catalog business and now an electronic version of the catalog business is killing the Malls?  And not even Amazon will sell you a house now, unless it is a DVD of the Hugh Laurie TV show from a few years back.

I would love to finish these thoughts by telling you that I have a great urge to go to my local Sears store to savor the shopping experience while I still can.  But I have no such urge.  Because there is no Sears experience to savor.  Sears seems to offer me nothing of unique value these days, whether it be price, convenience or selection.  It just sort of . . . is.  Will I be sad if/when it goes away?  I think I will, but mainly out of nostalgia for the Sears Roebuck & Co. of my youth.  And unfortunately, that Sears is already long gone.

13 thoughts on “Department Stores: Where America No Longer Shops

  1. And just to start the cycle over again, Amazon is experimenting with opening actual stores.

    Being from Michigan, we already had Meijer in the ’70s, so trips to a real department store were not that common. Mostly Sears until the ’80s. At that point Knapp’s, the local Store closed, and JC Penny took over their spot in the Mall.

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  2. My last experiences at Sears were not the stuff of nostalgia making…

    The water heater purchased in October 2015 leaked upon my installation. That necessitated taking it back and installing a second that is going fine.

    The bonus points awarded by both Sears and K-Mart, and collected by my wife, were a joke of sorts. Only a portion of points could be used in any given Sears department, which is something I learned upon wishing to purchase a water softener (which was not what Sears customer hotline had earlier told me). No deal. Later, upon the local Sears (and K-Mart) announcing their upcoming closures, I went back for a water softener. The closeout price was $100 higher than it had been previously. No dice.

    That said, I did purchase a battery powered chainsaw at Sears right before it closed. With it being 40% off its closeout price, that made it $10 cheaper than the regular price at a non-closing store. Such shenanigans don’t impress in a good way.

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    • Yes, these kinds of pricing games are no way to run a successful retail store. And wow, K-Mart. I can’t even remember the last time I went into one of those. When Sears took them over I imagined a rejuvenated K-Mart that might be a good alternative to WallyWorld. But, uh, no.

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  3. Sears Canada was actually doing relatively well, but it was reported last year that they were being pillaged of cash and resources to prop up the mother ship. Now the stores look like they are going out of business.
    I love Craftsman tools, but these days I prefer to buy “vintage” Craftsman on Ebay. I’ve got a great set of matching 1970’s ratchets now, same as my Dad’s set.
    I guess Sears is death by a thousand duck pecks, for everything they sell there’s a specialty store or online retailer who does it better.

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    • It occurs to me that when most of the world will make 3 separate stops at a Lowes, a Bed Bath & Beyond and a Best Buy instead of making one stop at Sears, Sears is doing something horribly wrong.

      I now remember that the Mrs. and I stopped there for some Christmas shopping the year that they were clearing their stocks of Lands End things, so 2 or 3 years ago? The store looked mighty depressing as that area was being thinned out.

      The ebay used Craftsman stuff sounds like a great idea, I will have to look into that.

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  4. Great post! I used to love trips to the mid sized department stores in the 70’s and 80’s. It was always so interesting and fun. You never knew what you were going to see for sale or what the decorations would look like. It’s unfortunate that this experience doesn’t exist anymore!

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  5. My mom had a deep suspicion of Sears during my 1970s kidhood so we never shopped there. She actually thought they were out to take over the world, so many things did they sell. So we shopped at Penney’s instead.

    But as an adult I came to see the wisdom of Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances. Oh, and especially Craftsman lawn equipment. Did you know that you can still today go to Sears Parts Direct online, enter in the stock number of the tractor you bought there twenty years ago, get a complete exploded diagram of the entire tractor assembly, find the part that broke after all these years of meritorious service, and order either it, or an equivalent part that replaced it, and have it shipped? Try THAT with the tractor you bought at Lowe’s. I dare you. Sears Parts Direct is the STUFF.

    Annnnnnd when Sears dies, so will it. A shame.

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  6. You’ve so beautifully provided a historical overview of department stores as a concept, and a wistful look at your own relationship with Sears, J. P. And I share both your nostalgia and your guilt on the latter: I used to be a loyal Sears shopper because they carried *everything,* and their sales staff knew their stuff. But my nostalgia stops there because — as you said so well — the Sears I remember already disappeared a while ago. Pity, too … I live in an old Sears kit house and can tell you their stuff was built to last!

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    • I love the idea of those Sears homes, I understand there are fans who try to identify and track them. My previous secretary had a grandfather who ordered one and built it himself. His widow lived there until recently until the combination of declining health and neighborhood made that a bad idea.

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      • It always makes me sad when someone has to give up their beloved home due to declining health — and even more so when a loved one built that house with his own hands. I do understand the fans’ fondness for these little homes, though; ours is very well-designed and makes excellent use of every square foot!

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