Friday, November 23, 2018

Thank You for Shopping at Sears

Last month Sears declared bankruptcy. Today's news is that the company hopes to sell most of its profitable stores, perhaps to its biggest shareholder, to keep the business alive. We'll see how well that works.

I started working for Sears after graduating high school in 1977. (That's me behind the thick glass of the Cashier's Cage in this Spring 1978 Polaroid taken by a sweet CSUN coed working in the stationery/photo department across the aisle at the Sears in Northridge Fashion Center.) We were an "A" store, ranking among the biggest in the company. When something new happened at Sears, Northridge was among the first stores to do it. As an accounting student at CSUN I read the Wall Street Journal, which helped give me some insights into the company. Such as, Sears was already in trouble.

Granted, Sears was still the biggest department store by any measure. But K-Mart was moving up and Sears was not responding very well. I remember a front page WSJ story describing Sears' plans to overcome the competion. And then a year or so later, there was another front page story describing Sears' new plan, replacing the earlier, unsuccessful plan. I recall thinking as I read that new story, "Wait a minute; that earlier plan hasn't even been implemented in our store yet."

Throughout the '80s Sears tried several different strategies. The one that affected me most was the creation of the in-store "Sears Financial Network," where I spent the last 2½ years of my Sears employment at Sears Savings Bank, the company's California savings-and-loan, at the in-store Northridge SFC (Sears Financial Center) branch. SSB's branch operations that weren't sold to Citicorp or California Federal Savings were shut down at the end of 1987, shortly before I started seminary. Yes, I helped close a bank.

Kmart never caught Sears. Walmart would pass them both, becoming the top retailer in 1990. Kmart went bankrupt in 2002, emerging from bankruptcy the next year. In 2004, Kmart bought the now obviously struggling Sears, so today's Sears Holdings Corporation is, in a sense, really Kmart.

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