spending

What Sears Meant to Us

Besides creating iconic brands, including Craftsman and Kenmore, Sears was a financial innovator.

As I write this column in mid October, the financial world is dealing with a bad case of the jitters. The stock market is on a roller-coaster ride, inflation is heating up, mortgage rates are closing in on 5%—and now Sears has filed for bankruptcy.

The latest blow to the once-ubiquitous retailer isn’t a surprise, and it isn’t adding fuel to already-combustible markets. But the news has hit me hard. For much of its 125-year history, Sears was woven into the fabric of America’s culture and communities. The store reflected the best qualities of middle America: practicality, reliability and authenticity. Luxury and status were not part of its mission. It represented value.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Sears was my family’s go-to store. My father’s workbench was stocked with Craftsman tools, and we had a Craftsman lawn mower in the garage. We bought Kenmore washers and dryers, Diehard car batteries and Silvertone televisions. For years, Dad worked one or two weekday evenings and Saturdays at Sears to supplement our income (his favorite gig was selling shoes). And of course, there were the catalogs. I spent hours leading up to the holidays paging through the Christmas Wish Book.

As recently as 2002, Sears sold four of every 10 major appliances in the U.S. My wife and I have a noisy, workhorse Kenmore refrigerator that’s at least two decades old—I’m not sure of its exact age because we inherited it when we bought our house. Our neighborhood is dotted with Sears kit homes built in the 1920s and 1930s.

A financial innovator. Besides creating iconic brands, Sears was a financial innovator. The company introduced its customers to shopping on credit in 1906 and launched the Discover card in 1985. It created Allstate insurance in 1931 and eventually added the Dean Witter Reynolds stock brokerage and Coldwell Banker real estate firms to its corporate holdings. Sears even partnered with IBM to create Prodigy, the dial-up online service. For several years in the 1990s, Kiplinger staffers answered investing questions on the Prodigy message boards.

The initial public offering of Sears in 1906 was the first major retail IPO in America. Bearing one of the coveted single-letter stock symbols, S, it traded on the New York Stock Exchange until Sears merged with Kmart. (Sprint bought the symbol in 2005 after the new Sears Holdings Corp. started trading as SHLD on the Nasdaq; it's now trading as SHLDQ.) During its heyday, employee benefits included pensions and company shares in its profit-sharing program. Its 110-story Chicago headquarters was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1974.

Sears’s troubles started with the rise of Walmart and Home Depot and the other big-box retailers. Its decline accelerated when Amazon made online shopping a viable alternative. For more than a decade, Sears has been run by a hedge fund manager who has sold off valuable brands and more than a thousand stores while debts piled up. Some 700 stores are still open, but many will close before the holidays.

On the Monday morning after the bankruptcy announcement, a few colleagues and I reminisced about our shared Sears experiences—all the great appliances we’ve bought, new tires for our cars and clothes for our kids, family portraits at the in-store photo studios. We couldn’t think of any other retailer that meant so much to each of us.

I haven’t visited my local Sears store in several years. But I’m going to stop by before the holidays to do a little shopping and pay my respects.

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