Just in time to celebrate the New Year, Sears Holdings announced a few days ago that in view of its dreadful sales performance it will be closing 79 of its stores – adding yet another 5000 workers or so to the ranks of the unemployed.
What a change from the days when Sears, Roebuck & Co. was the premiere retailer on which Americans relied to make their everyday household and clothing purchases.
When I moved to Chicago to start college, there were two AM radio stations which broadcast their messages to the listening audience with the strongest wattage that was allowed on the radio frequency spectrum. Those were WGN and WLS.
WGN was owned by “The Chicago Tribune.” Its call letters stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper.
WLS was owned by Sears, Roebuck & Co. Its call letters stood for World’s Largest Store.
So what happened? How did this massive marketing behemoth fall? How did a company that once produced a giant-sized 500 page catalog which many Americans called the “Sears Wishbook” (old editions of which would be used as toilet paper by many rural citizens in their outhouses), come to this state?
The answer is that management did not recognize or adapt to changes in the demographics of America – and had an arrogant belief that they were “too big to fail.”
At one point I had office space on the 92nd floor of what was then called Sears Tower. Sears was a difficult landlord to deal with – rigid and inflexible. My lease document was nearly as long as “War and Peace.” Things would be done “the Sears way and only the Sears way.”
Four years into my five year lease I inquired whether Sears would be willing to renew it. Their original plan was that the Sears Tower would ultimately house nothing but the employees of Sears and its subsidiaries – Allstate Insurance, Discover Card and the rest. At the point of my inquiry they held to that plan and had no intention of renewing any tenant leases. So I began looking elsewhere and found comparable (though not so lofty) space.
Several weeks after I signed the new lease document Sears had a change of heart. They were seeing a downturn in their business and would welcome my renewal as one of their tenants. But by then I had already committed to my new space. And as the lease expired I looked forward to the new offices and to a landlord who I hoped would be a little more tenant-friendly.
The tower is a remarkable architectural achievement – still the tallest structure in the United States. Yet, I will admit that I didn’t miss having to take two elevators and an escalator to get to and from my office. But that’s the price you pay to have a view.
Sears sold the building – which is now the Willis Tower – along with many of the stores that they have closed over the years. They relinquished the coveted single letter New York Stock Exchange ticker symbol of “S” – along with their place as one of the most iconic of all American companies.
Although my dealings with them were less friendly than I would have preferred, still I cannot help but feel that their eclipse is an American tragedy. And one of Shelley’s poems comes to mind:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on the lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”