12 September 2008

In memory of "The OLD Sears"

Tonight, while shopping for some pants that'll actually stay on my ass, we visited Sears. And after a nice case of sticker-shock (forty-@#$%ing-six dollars? *snort*), we wandered around the store. I thought, long as we were in Sears, that we'd browse the bicycles. I'm now looking for a bike .... I'm so jonesin' for a two-wheeled apparatus that it ain't funny. And wouldn't it be cool to have one from Sears, even though it wouldn't have been their "Free Spirit" house brand.

Guess what: No bikes. Plenty of uber-expensive ellipticals and treadmills, but no bicycles.

Sears without bicycles? Say it ain't so.

But that's not the only thing that got me all depressed. It started when we entered the store late this afternoon. I looked above me, and what I didn't see pretty much ruined my day -- as if the ka-ching of our greedy, speculating gas cartel hadn't already done so:
Where's the classic Sears overhead portal??!! Where did it go????

It's a good thing I had the foresight to get a picture of this back in May, the last time I was at this Sears store:
Pictured above is the longtime Sears portal, as it appeared over each and every entrance to a Sears department store. "Sears, Roebuck And Co. Satisfaction Guaranteed or your money back." It's a big part of my life. I never paid it much attention growing up, as it was always there. You know, like the golden arches of McDonald's.

Or at least my "id" didn't give it much thought. Obviously, it was certainly deeply entrenched in the subconscious. Again, it was a big part of my life. It spoke, "Welcome to the Great American Department Store." Sears' sign did what no Wal-Mart door greeter could ever do: make you feel truly welcomed. And those words "Satisfaction guaranteed" were more than a slogan, too.

Sears, Roebuck and Company, most of you know, was the retailer which kept a roof over our heads, food in our mouths, and ...... clothed ..... for our entire childhood. My Dad worked for Sears from 1965 through 1993. From a lowly paint salesman in Huntsville, Alabama to a highly-regarded store manager in North Little Rock, Ark. When Dad retired, he went out on top; he was cited as being one of the top ten store managers in the entire Sears chain, in terms of sales and profit.

Well, as much as Sears has changed, and not much of it for the better, I took great comfort in the two remaining door portals at the Savannah store in Oglethorpe Mall, no doubt dating back to the store's opening along with the mall in 1969.

I'm glad I took a picture of it, because this evening, it was no longer there. Replaced by an empty pane of glass. At first I thought, "maybe there was a mishap, and the other one near the lawn and garden department is still there." I went to see if it was, and it too had been replaced.

Why do I feel like these modern-day companies are doing their damnest to rid themselves of any "heritage" appointments? Would that I could as easily do the same to my first marriage.

As we walked around the "fitness equipment" area, I looked across the main walkway to the paint department. It looked empty and forlorn, with a few color cards and a scant selection of gallon paint cans.

My mood plummeted. I found myself 'morphing' that paint section into the way it looked in 1969. Back when that department had a name of its own: The Color House. Back when there would be someone sitting there, awaiting a customer. And Sears workers, back then, were trained in their areas. Dad, too. Anyone buying Sears "Easy Living" house paint in Huntsville, Ala. in 1968 probably bought it from my Dad. And he helped them out, knowing of what he spoke, and armed them with all the information they needed to make smart choices.

I walked toward another section of that store, and I was stopped by the first "employee" I saw. She asked if Sera and I were homeowners. I said we were, knowing what was fixin' to follow.

The woman was a rep for "Sears Home Improvement." (uhhhh-UH??!!) She was peddling windows. I told her we were plenty happy with XP and had no interest in "upgrading" to Vista.

If you think that joke is bad, there's plenty more where that came from.

Anyhoo, I told her our windows date back to the ancient days of 2003.

Meanwhile, I saw only one (1) employee in that entire section. And he had a look on his face emptier than ones' wallet after buying gas this weekend.

My next gaze was toward the back wall of Lawn & Garden (after which I saw the other portal glass replaced), and - again - my "morphing mind" envisioned a part of the wall where the Allstate Insurance kiosk would've sat. Sears used to own Allstate, and all stores had a little desk where one could buy insurance, pay premiums, or make claims. Trivia: Allstate was originally Sears' house brand of tires - and, for a short time, CARS. From there, the name was lent to the retailer's venture into insurance.

Back then it wasn't just Allstate that made you feel like you were in "good hands." All of Sears' employees made you feel like a valued customer.

At that point - for reasons I cannot fathom - I looked up toward the ceiling. And that's just about the only part of that store which retained any vestige of "classic Sears." The recessed light fixtures had a plastic or metal 'grid' formation over the florescent tubes. Just like '60s and '70s era Sears stores I remembered.

Finally, I gently hinted toward my wife that I really wanted to get out of there. I had to leave, because I was getting plum' morose. I still needed some jeans, and we hadn't yet eaten supper. The stomach was going, "Feed me points. Must have points. Carey Hilliard's fried scallops. Now."

Want to see just what we've lost as a country? This picture speaks thousands of words toward that end:

This could've been any family in the '60s, walking out of the Heart of Huntsville Mall
with paint which my Dad helped them select and mix.

(photo credit: pleasantfamilyshopping.blogspot.com)

So what happened to Sears?? I believe the downfall can be traced back to the 1980s, due to a host of bad decisions at the corporate level. In the early '90s, they made changes to the way they paid employees, ditching the time-honored "seniority" model. Sears made lots of cutbacks, giving golden-parachutes to scores of managers (Dad was one), leaving behind poor-excuses for retail people, not to mention forays into telemarketing and other "independent direct-sales."

Time was you were never far from a Sears employee no matter where you were in the store ... now, you're likely to be closer to the anchor-store at the other end of the mall than you are to anybody to give you the time of day in a Sears store. That is, except for "home improvement" peddlers.

They used to have a first-rate auto service department (and even once upon a time sold gasoline), but the pressures to sell-sell-sell made the auto mechanics start cutting corners and ripping consumers off ... remember the lawsuits back in the '90s? Today, it's just tires and batteries. Seeing the auto center at "Uglythorpe" Mall adds to this melancholy casserole: if one looks closely enough, remnants of the original gas pump islands can be seen out front on the White Bluff Road side.

I'd give anything short of my wife and son to go back in time to a Sears store in the late '60s or early '70s. When the store had a snack bar - "The Coffee House" - the candy counter (with the best candy corn this side of Brach's!), when they sold gasoline, had a RECORD section ... when Sears was truly a department store. The Sears catalog was the bible of most rural-dwellers ... serving multiple duty from providing a way to the finer things in life to soft-porn diversions (the lingerie pages) to the ultimate use: as proto-Charmin! You could even buy CARS and HOUSES at one time. Richard Nixon's residence in Yorba Linda, California was a Sears-bought house!

Of course, not all Sears memories were GOOD ... as a Sears child, my legs walked many a mile in "Toughskins" jeans (with the reinforced knees), and I had several "Winnie the Pooh" garments. I even remember that one Christmas my brother and I got matching "Tigger" pajamas:

Christmas 1971, Tupelo. Our new house we'd moved into just days before
(note the lack of curtains on the windows!). I'm the Tigger on the left.

Hard as it is to believe in this day and age, there was a time when Sears stocked just ITS OWN merchandise. You couldn't buy a Sony or an RCA telly ... only your choice of the many different "Silvertone" models (the Sears nameplate for its radio and TV sets ... and guitar amps and musical instruments, back when they sold 'em). Other "house names" included Free Spirit (bicycles), Hilary (tents and outdoor gear), Ted Williams (sporting goods), Coldspot (appliances), Kings Road (mens' clothes), Junior Bazaar (womens' wear), the list goes on.

Sears' Christmas catalog was called The Wish Book. And you know that puppy went into our hands the day it hit the stores.

You heard no "[BOONG!!] BRENDA, PICK UP ON THE GREEN LINE!" announcements, as you do endlessly in Wal-Mart .... instead there was a Morse-code style of paging you'd hear over the PA system. In Tupelo, Dad's code was one long chime, followed by four quick chimes. The sound of those chimes, for me, was a factor which helped define the whole Sears shopping experience back in the day.

Well, the coffee shops had disappeared by the late '70s, the chimes were gone by the early '80s, and the gas pumps out front eventually went dry. And the last time I had a heavenly bag of Sears candy corn, I was probably all of 11 years old (1976).

Back in my early teenaged years, when I was slaying dragons, I wondered out loud why Sears didn't carry BRAND NAMES! Why couldn't Mom whip out that Sears Card and get my brother and me some spiffy Nike tennis shoes??

"Be careful what you wish for, Talmadge." Sears soon did just that. The concept was called "Brand Central." Sears began carrying brand names, and soon most of the house names were on their way out.

And that, in my humble', is when Sears, Roebuck & Company jumped the shark. That was the beginning of the end, I'm afraid. Sears began to wilt. At some point in the mid-ish 1990s, Wal-Mart surged past Sears to become the nation's #1 retailer!

Sears used to stand behind what it sold. If you bought a Silvertone console color TV, and something went wrong, Sears sent one of their repairmen to your home - driving teal-colored vans emblazoned with the words "SEARS National Service Fleet" - to return your set to good health.

Today, Sears still has a hold on me, even in its pathetic present-day form. If I make a trip to any shopping mall, whether here or anywhere else, I always park next to Sears and enter the mall that way ... strictly out of force-of-habit.

Today, Sears barely manages to compete with the likes of Best Buy, Circuit City, JCPenney or Lowe's. Their only aces in the hole are their remaining store brands: Kenmore, Craftsman and Die Hard. Without those, Sears may as well be just another closet in the mall instead of an anchor store.

Why has Sears - the greatest name in retail history - allowed itself to wither away to such a terrible joke?

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Sears Brat" Gleck


nettiemac said...

I remember our nearby Sears -- a 3-story building. Appliances, paint, home improvement, all that in the basement. What I remember most about the basement was going to buy refill bags for our Sears trash compactor (I can still hear the wom-wom-wom-wom sound of that machine).

On the main floor (actually the 2nd) was clothing, accessories, shoes, the candy counter (YUM!), TOYS, Allstate and maybe tires (or that could have been basement). I spent many hours in the "Pretty-Plus" section; yeah, I know.... I get the ughs just remembering it.

Upstairs (3rd floor) was home electronics, records, luggage, maybe additional menswear, carpeting/flooring, and the photo studio. That was where we bought our 8-track-by-God of Saturday Night Fever, so we could listen to it in Dad's truck.

It was a stand-alone store on Stone Avenue, just off downtown. Then in 1980, they moved to Haywood Mall, and it's never been quite as good since.

Kate/Susan said...

We used to go to Sears all the time when I was growing up. We had a mere 2 level Sears out near the public square in Watertown, NY, and my dad would go in there to pay the car insurance by actually handing a paper check to an actual Allstate salesman, whose job it was to sit there during store hours and sell insurance, etc. I got my Easter dresses there, and clothing, shoes, and who knows what else. My parents were there bi-monthly. I have a particularly good memory of going there when I was 12 and getting a spiral-bound notebook for less than a quarter and being hardpressed to choose the cover color I wanted most (I wound up with yellow).

I was really sad when they closed that Sears. It moved over to the Mall, a very spacious store, but very difficult to find anything. And if you did, you couldn't find someone to sell it to you. In high school, my parents bought me a typewriter there, and we couldn't find the correct eraser ribbon. Finally I had to bring the whole typewriter in to the store only to have the "salesman" say, "Well, this isn't the right ribbon." Uh... You think so!?

Great article, thanks for writing it.