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Sears: Personal reflections from an insider

Sears in brighter days.
Sears in brighter days. AP file

My generation, and perhaps yours, grew up with Sears, an iconic institution that is now down for the final count. How sad.

Please indulge me. Sears, at one time:

▪  Was the largest retailer in the world.

▪  Had stores and offices worldwide.

▪  Owned the tallest building in the world, Sears Tower.

▪  Owned the largest private testing laboratory in the world.

▪  Sold 40 percent of all residential laundry appliances (Kenmore) in America.

▪  Generated over 40 percent of its revenue and 60 percent of its total net profit from credit sales while three out of four American families had a Sears revolving charge, easy payment account or both.

▪  Created a package of financial services through its acquisition of Coldwell Banker, Dean Witter, Sears Bank and Allstate Insurance. The anticipated synergistic results were disappointing.

▪  Revolutionized the slogan, “Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back.” Operations Bulletin 277 was the Sears bible of customer relations, which ended with the statement, “Ultimately our customer will be the judge of their satisfaction.” I recall crediting a dissatisfied customer’s account for full value covering their three-year-old installed kitchen!

▪  The catalog was the largest corporate distribution in the world. In fact, Russia and other nations used the general catalog as a teaching tool in their schools.

▪  The catalog sold pets and farm animals. As a service manager, I sent out a service tech on a donkey’s bent ear complaint. Our tech’s religious training apparently convinced our customer that it was God’s will!

▪  The catalog sold total packaged houses, many still in use today. Remember the Allstate car (Henry J)?

▪  Was extremely paternalistic, providing excellent benefits, featuring the finest profit-sharing plan then in existence for its 450,000 employees. Periodicals such as the Saturday Evening Post often featured Sears employees, such as a porter, retiring with over $150,000 in the 1950s. Career paths and promotion from within were followed almost to a fault. Our headquarters lingerie buyer was promoted to tire buyer, one of the best profit departments in the company.

▪  Was unique. Our headquarters basic buying specification contracts often stabilized small suppliers and help them grow efficiently by guaranteeing level production, time deliveries, technical support and, yes, their margin of profit. For example, the unheard of Waterloo Valve Co. produced some of our Craftsman (guaranteed forever) hand tools.

▪  Store managers, prior to gradual centralization beginning in the 1980s, were able to select, price, promote and time their individual store events. They also signed annual performance contracts!

So what happened? Perhaps a feeling of invincibility blinded us to the many changes and potential dangers that were taking place in the retail industry. Certainly, as a mature corporation, our higher built-in cost structure for operations and benefits were detriments as younger, leaner competition entered the marketplace.

More recently, customer purchasing through the internet has become an attractive alternative, and a paramount contributor to our decline. Hindsight being 20-20, instead of our then new president, from Saks Fifth Avenue no less, shutting down all catalog operations, we had a window of opportunity. Prior to the Amazons of the world, we could have converted our catalog operations into an internet catalog, utilizing the then 11 national distribution centers as well as the support staff and the retail stores.

Although I could go on, I must stop here. My 34-year experience with the Sears we all grew up with is something I will always cherish.

Earle Everett of Moss Creek was a Sears executive from 1956 to 1990, holding various management positions in the Eastern Territory. He can be reached at everathhi@hargray.com