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James R. Stout

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     I recently read an article regarding retail stores and businesses that will likely soon vanish. Go out of business. Turn out the lights and the party’s over. Some of the companies I have never done business at. Mostly because the business is not related to anything I would ever buy. Women’s clothes, restaurants not in the areas where I have lived, and upscale products such as a well-known jewelry store account for most of the companies. But there were a couple that I at one time used a great deal, but haven’t in some time. Then there was THE one big giant store that was at one time king in America. Sears & Roebuck. 
     I must admit that I have mostly stopped going to Sears over the past few years. One of the reasons given for their demise was their unwillingness to change with the times. I disagree. They have changed with the times and in changing with the times they lost their appeal and usefulness. At least to me. 
     Let’s understand a couple of things to begin with. Sears has been around a long time. A really long time in the retail world. My Great-grandparents purchased many items via the Sears catalog. It was invaluable to the majority of households in those early days. The days when most people lived in rural America. I’m reminded of the Arlo Guthrie classic Thanksgiving record “Alice’s Restaurant”. Why? Because the line “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” that is repeated often in that song really did apply to Sears for nearly 100 years. Heck, in the early 1900’s you could even purchase the plans and all the materials for a “kit house” from Sears. They would ship it all by rail and you built your house. It cost around $3,000 for a three-story Victorian styled home. There’s still many of them out there. In fact, there is one within 8 miles of me as I write this. 
     By the time my Grandparents were relying on the Sears catalog it was the 1920’s-1950’s. They lived on the farm and purchasing many items via the catalog was the way to go. But by that time Sears had really started to branch out and there were huge Sears stores in most large cities. I remember well going to the Sears stores in Houston in the late 1950’s. It was like going to an amusement park. No joke. It seemed huge and by the standards of that day it was huge. Two floors packed with everything. Arlo would have been proud. Going to the story was a family event. There were the appliances, big and small, clothes for everyone, a toy department second to none, a sporting goods department, second to none, typewriters, cameras, jewelry, shoes, home decorations, furniture, and so much more. It was like walking into the Sears catalog and being able to touch the real items. Then there was the candy station. The kid’s holy grail. Candy corn, chocolate everything, jelly beans, nuts, popcorn, and even a soda machine. Mom could park me in front of the candy station and I wouldn’t budge while she went to the “unmentionables” department. Mom also sewed clothes for us kids and Sears had all the material, patterns, and sewing needs you could want. 
     I might mention that about that same time Sears had a big rival. It was like the retail equivalent to “Robot Wars” or something. Montgomery Wards, or “Monkey Wards” as we called it, went head-to-head for many years. But Sears was the undisputed champion. Wards finally made it’s last gasp about 20 years ago. Sears’ death has been more painful and prolonged. While they aren’t dead yet, the lights and buzzers on the life support system are going nuts right about now.
So, what has laid Sears so low? That one is easy. It’s a combination of things. Sears stopped leading the way and innovating and instead started to attempt to copy other retail outlets. Bad form there. When a leader stops leading, he soon won’t be able to even follow. Same for a retail business.Sure, there are a few examples that come to mind where a company leads, falters and almost goes belly up, but then revives to become the leader again. Apple Electronics comes to mind. But those are rare examples. Another reason for the downfall of Sears is not really their fault at all. The generation that is currently in their 30’s and early 40’s, the young families of today, didn’t do what the previous three generations did. They didn’t hold to tradition. Not just in retail selections, but in most things. They stopped going to church. They stopped buying their parent’s tried and true products in lieu of newer, and in some cases bizarre, products. Not all of that generation, but many of them. A significant amount to be sure.
     Now, all of this said let me state something very clearly. Sears is a drag today. I went into one of their stores recently and it had little appeal. It was like going into a shoe store that only carried purple and pink shoes that were only available in very odd sizes such as men’s 16 AAAA or women’s 1A. Not useful at all. Their product lines were very limited. The truth is they can’t compete with Wal-mart, Target, and so forth even though I loathe going in those stores for some of the same reasons. I still wear perfectly good shirts that are 10 years old because I can’t find anything like them new anymore. Most of the clothes are made in other countries. The glory days of Sears featured American made products. Made by Americans for Americans. About the only thing Sears still has going for it is their tool line, Craftsmen. And you can park a lot closer to and get in and out of quicker, a place like Harbor Freight and purchase anything found in the tool department of Sears. 
     Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t hate Sears. I have some great memories from my life that are tied to Sears. My first bicycle came from Sears. Christmas memories are directly related to the two months of drooling over the Sears Christmas “Toy” catalog. But those days are gone. Forever, I am afraid. I even worked one Christmas at a Sears when I was in high school. It was fun. It was like family in a strange way. A mentor and former Sunday School teacher worked part-time in the appliance department while school was out (him being a teacher) and we had lunch together several times. Like a big brother he was and still is. But times have indeed changed. America isn’t the America my generation once knew and you have to stop and realize that all good things do come to an end. 
     To be honest, I don’t go out shopping much anymore anyway. Maybe that’s part of the problem too. This thing we call “Online shopping” is partly a symptom of what’s wrong with us today. We continue to distance ourselves from other people while claiming we are more in touch via social media etc. And, the truth is, our society isn’t nearly so nice to each other as we once were. It’s just not very pleasant to go to a place like Sears or Wal-mart, etc. When the day comes for Sears to go belly up there will likely be 20 second blurb on the evening news and perhaps a short article on Yahoo or something. But I imagine that it will be something like hearing about the death of a once famous actor who dies in their sleep at 94. To those of us old enough to remember them, it will be a reminder of our own mortality and of the losses we experience as we grow older. But to most people, it will be like “Who died? Never heard of ‘em.” Many people will remember the name of Sears for a while, but like Monkey Wards, in 20 years most people won’t have any memories of Sears and certainly not the ones that my generation has. We’ll mostly be gone too and if those of us still hanging on mention Sears to our grandchildren or great-grandchildren it will be like when my mother mentions the kerosene refrigerator she grew up with. What’s “kerosene” Paw-Paw?

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