Sears has slipped billions of dollars into debt, and industry analysts are predicting the end. And Sears Canada is closing all of its remaining stores and laying off 12,000 employees. Sears was once an icon of American consumer culture.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with historian Jerry Hancock about the company’s better days.
On the role of Sears in American consumer culture
“Sears is an American institution. It’s part of Americana, and to see it go this way, I think it’s a sign of things to come for the United States.
“For me personally, I grew up in rural Georgia and a small farming community, and it was school clothes, it was Santa Claus, it was, you know, all of those things. That catalog is not only access to the merchandise, but it was also, I think, particularly in the South, a window into the future. I think the catalog really taught a lot of Americans about consumption and technology and now serves as an incredible history book.”
On how World War I Gen. Robert Wood changed Sears as a company executive
“He really understood it. His background in the military, he was a procurement officer for the Panama Canal project, and I think that really gave him insight into how to efficiently move large quantities of goods around the country. Basically what he did was he set up a territory system and divided the nation into five territories, and supplying those five territories were 10 distribution plants combined with retail stores. So, if you go into any of the plants — we have one here in Atlanta that’s just been converted into a mixed-use facility called Ponce City Market. And if you go in you still see remnants of those plants and how they fill the orders with these huge conveyors, these big spiraling shoots. Each floor would get a ticket for whatever items and they would have the merchandise divided by floor, and they would fill each order and in the bottom would be a massive mail room where all of the items would be collected and bundled together. And then literally on the back of the building was a railroad — they would put the items onto the train and ship them out. It was, it was an incredible operation. So they built these 10 plants around the country fueling these five districts, and each one of the territories had quite a bit of autonomy from the corporate offices in Chicago, and really just served the nation on so many levels.”
On competition and the fall of Sears
“From talking to numerous retirees — I’ve established a relationship in Atlanta with the Atlanta Sears Family, which is the largest Sears retirees organization in the country right now. And, I tell you, the one theme that always seems to come out in these conversations is that it was the ‘too-big-to-fail’ mentality. It almost seems like when they built the Sears Tower, they had built this monument to themselves in Chicago. And from that point on, they continually lost touch with that blue-collar, working-class roots that they had established during the mail order and in early retail.
“And I actually spoke with one retiree, and he was actually on the corporate level for the southeast region. He was at a meeting in Chicago and brought up Wal-Mart, and one of the executives on the board in Chicago kicks him under the table and he says, ‘I don’t want to hear anything about this Wal-Mart. They’re a discount store and they are not competition for this company.’ Of course, 1993 was the year that they published the very last Sears catalog. And from that point forward, I think Wal-Mart just really went for the jugular.”
On failure to keep up with technology and the emphasis on the internet and online orders
“It does seem odd that they wouldn’t have made that move, but I believe at the corporate level that they were really set on retail, and saw the catalogs and the mail order thing as sort of passé by that point. I believe that Sears sort of fell behind in the technology aspect of it, and that’s where, like I said, it’s just a sad story to see the way that it’s going and the direction it’s going.”
On comparisons to Amazon, in terms of high-end products and brick-and-mortar presence
“You know, Amazon, obviously very tech savvy, and as they move into brick and mortar, are they going to be able to keep their head and be able to fluctuate with market changes? That was one of the things that early Sears was really good at, you know, particularly under Gen. Wood. It’s just very interesting to see how history is repeating itself with Amazon right now.”