Sears Had Everything: The decline of an American institution


Sears had everything.

Sadly, today I learned that the retailer Sears will close another group of stores, leaving only 30 retail stores remaining. This is from a peak of over 3000 stores.

Sears had always been the go-to store for millions of people for everything related to home ownership, electronics, clothing and automotive. They also founded Allstate insurance and Discover card.

I purchased everything from Sears. Craftsman tools were guaranteed for life, and they meant it. I had the occasion to break the handle on my 20-year-old Craftsman shovel and without any kind of receipt, brought it back to the store and I was handed a new one, no questions asked.

Everybody knew that Kenmore appliances were made by Whirlpool. Sears’ business model was to buy the excess capacity from the factories of well-known American companies like Whirlpool and have their own Kenmore branded products produced there. You could get the same quality at a reduced price. You could not beat Kenmore appliances when they were on sale.

I had a new home built 21 years ago and got an allowance from the builder for a stove and dishwasher. I thought the $1500 allowance would be plenty until I began to shop for them. The only way we could afford both appliances was to buy them from Sears when they were on sale. The helpful Sears salesperson advised us on when the items we were interested in would be on sale.

After moving into the house, it was only the beginning of my relationship with Sears.

A Kenmore washer and dryer soon followed. Then Sears garage door openers. Every birthday, Christmas or Father’s Day I was greeted with a Craftsman power tool. All the products were American made and of good quality. I used my Eager 1 lawnmower for so long a hole rusted through the body and I welded a piece of sheet metal over the hole so rocks would not go through it and hit me. The engine still starts every time.

Besides the good quality, Sears included an exploded diagram of every product.

A Dryer Exploded
A Dryer Exploded

There was a Sears repair shop near where I lived, and you could go there and buy whatever part you needed and do the repair yourself or you could take the appliance there and it would be done by their technicians. I used to go on a Saturday and there would always be a line at the parts counter.

Soon I found myself replacing drive belts on my Kenmore dryer or a circuit board on my Sears garage door opener.

It was that value added feature that set Sears apart from other retailers.

Sears also had an automotive department. They specialized in exhaust systems, shock absorbers and batteries sold under their Die-Hard brand.

Like Craftsman tools Sears mufflers were guaranteed for life. This worked in their favor because usually when the muffler had a hole in it, the rest of the exhaust system needed to be replaced as well.

It must be noted that Sears started as a mail order company aimed at rural customers. During the post WW2 boom was when Sears gained the reputation as having everything. They even had Sears prefab houses for sale.

Do It Yourself House
Do It Yourself House

The business expanded in the 50’s and 60’s. They often bought land away from the downtown areas and created whole shopping centers with Sears as the anchor store. They began to cater to people with automobiles with ample free parking.

Sears peaked in the 1970s and in 1974 completed the 110 story Sears Tower in Chicago. This was now the world’s tallest building.

110 Story Sears Tower
110 Story Sears Tower

In the 1980s Sears got into non retail endeavors. In addition to its Allstate insurance business, it got into the credit business with the Discover card. Sears also partnered with IBM to produce Prodigy, the early internet application.

This distracted management to lose focus from their core business and lose market share to Walmart.

In 1990 Walmart edged Sears out as the nation’s largest retailer.

Sears continued it’s decline. Instead of doing what they did best, which was offering good quality products at a reasonable price and then standing behind those products they began to copy Walmart and expanded their sales of brand-named appliances and less on their Kenmore and Silvertone brands.

In 2004 Kmart bought Sears and the decline continued.

Sears Had Everything: The decline of an American institution
Sears Had Everything: The decline of an American institution

Instead of making the K-Mart stores more like Sears with good products and outstanding customer service they continued to mimic Walmart, selling cheaply made Chinese imports and closing all the Sears Repair Depots. Now their products were no longer repairable losing the uniqueness that always made Sears the best choice for many different products.

At the same time Sears discontinued its catalog sales program. This was probably their biggest mistake that will be debated in business schools for many years to come. Sears could have been bigger than Amazon if they had converted their catalog business to online sales. They were a little ahead of the technology, but it was rapidly developing. They had everything already in place and they had one of the best name recognitions in the world.

In the years that followed the quality of the products had gotten worse. I no longer bought my appliances there. The last time I bought a Die-Hard battery there it was obvious it was not the same quality as in the past.

Die Hard
Die Hard

The Sears store in my town closed two years ago. They did not even wait until after Christmas. Months before I took a walk through the store. It looked like a yard sale. The electronics department was gone. It was apparent all the electronics vendors had shut them off. Even the tool department had a lot of odds and ends they were trying to sell.

I can still buy Craftsman tools at Lowes which has been useful since I needed a transmitter for a garage door opener for my new truck.

It is a shame that an American institution has been driven into the ground through greed and mismanagement. It will be a sad day when the last Sears store closes its doors for good.

Sears Had Everything: The decline of an American institution
22 Opinion