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Sears, Where America Shopped

May 21, 2019, 9:09 PM UTC

I’m old enough to remember when Toughskins jeans offered a promise any mother could get behind: They’re so tough your kids will grow out of them before the jeans wore out.

The brand was exclusive to Sears and the jeans were lab-tested creations of science, a cotton-poly-sumthin-sumthin blend that I was convinced could withstand everything but a launch into space. They even ran a commercial with kids jumping on a trampoline made of Toughskins material.

My first pair were green and I loved them. I was eleven, maybe twelve. They were among the first new things that my then still newly-single mother could afford after finally finding a good desk job. Until then, we had been, as the saying goes, on a very tight budget. A couple of paychecks in, she was able to rescue us from hand-me-downs and Salvation Army garb. Little by little, our tiny apartment became a home filled with nice, affordable things, mostly from Sears.

They were the best jeans I’ve ever owned.

I was thinking about my Toughskins jeans when I read this story from my colleagues Geoff Colvin and Phil Wahba, who documented the decline of the once indispensable brand in their recent story, painfully titled, “Sears’ Seven Decades of Self-Destruction.”

Sears’s slide from dominance into bankruptcy and irrelevance describes a series of missteps, bad calls, and worse luck that in some ways, helped make Amazon possible. (For proof, read Wahba’s companion piece, “Sears Could Have Been Amazon. Here’s How It Blew Its Chances” and weep.)

The origins of the company date back to the 1890s, but damn, it had legs: By 1969, its sales were 1% of the entire U.S. economy and two-thirds of Americans shopped there in any given quarter. According to Wahba and Colvin, it was still the world’s largest retailer by revenue in 1991.

I’m not the only one who remembers the retailer with a big helping of nostalgia.

When Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October, Louis Hyman, an economic historian, turned an epic Twitter thread into an opinion piece explaining how the once-famous catalog published by Sears was a lifeline for black shoppers during Jim Crow.

He begins with the not-so-slippery slope of legally sanctioned discrimination.

“In 1883, the Supreme Court voided the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had banned discrimination in public businesses like theaters, restaurants, trains and shops,” he writes. “The loss of political rights, then, followed the loss of consumer rights.” Black consumers had to endure threats, indignities, and violence to shop in person for life’s necessities. The Sears catalog, formally introduced in 1893, offered low prices and credit and did not discriminate. “All of a sudden, black families could buy whatever they wanted without asking permission.”

Sears brought more than durable jeans to the masses.

Here’s one fun example. If any of your forefamily bought a musical instrument, radio, or other electronic gizmos – like the first hand-cranked phonograph in 1915, they probably got it from the Silvertone line sold through Sears. The brand persisted for decades and made musicianship affordable – Chet Atkins, Jerry Garcia, Joan Jett, and Dave Grohl were among thousands of guitarists who first played Silvertones.

While the Sears story isn’t officially over, it certainly feels like it. (Even a recent partnership with the Kardashians didn’t do much.) But Sears’s long slow end-of-an-era tale starts of course, at the top, say Wahba and Colvin:

Almost every corporate demise can be traced to a blown CEO succession, and that was Sears’ first decisive error. Indeed, it could be regarded as five or six bad successions because the board perpetuated its error for 20 years. This error permitted a gradual accumulation of weaknesses that became almost insurmountable.

Food for thought, right? While there’s no way to prove that a more diverse talent pool might have produced the kind of leadership and course correction that could have helped Sears transition into the modern age, it’s nice to think that leaders who resembled the single moms, Jim Crow survivors, and other aspirational middle-incomers – people who understood Sears – would have had a real contribution to make.

It feels like the company wore itself out before we had the chance to outgrow it.

On Point

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On Background

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Gear Patrol

Aidan Taylor assisted in the preparation of today's summaries.


Many a hundred-dollar man remains a fifteen-dollar subordinate because he is not given any latitude and is not allowed to develop… The surest way to gain unswerving loyalty of employees is to show them from the start that they will be allowed to make the most of themselves. A man wants to stay with the firm with which he can reach his greatest efficiency.
—Richard W. Sears