Long Island recently lost its last Sears, that once ubiquitous powerhouse retailer that sold a range of goods, from sturdy jeans to solidly built power tools and refrigerators. Started in 1893 as a mail-order catalog to peddle watches to farmers, Sears built a favorable reputation through much of the 20th century as a mainstay of America’s burgeoning middle class.
By the time I was born in 1967, Sears was the world’s largest retailer, serving as an anchor tenant at malls across the land. Construction on Sears Tower in Chicago — which became the world’s tallest skyscraper, at 1,450 feet — began in 1969 and was completed four years later. Called Willis Tower these days, it’s now the world’s 12th tallest building.
Sears once boasted locations throughout Long Island, including in Valley Stream, New Hyde Park, Garden City and Hicksville. The final holdout was at the Sunrise Mall in Massapequa, where about a third of the storefronts are vacant, Newsday recently reported.
My childhood is inextricably linked to Sears. Every year in August, my parents, both teachers, brought my brother and me to Sears at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, in Suffolk County, to buy school clothes. I knew then that summer’s carefree days were fading, and classes would soon begin.
It was always a big deal to make the trip from our home in then rural Yaphank to the mall, which, growing up in farm country, seemed to me like the epitome of modernity. At Sears, clothes were always purchased first. Then my mom and dad would spend time in the tools section. They were also artists with a two-story stone studio behind our house, where they kept all their carving instruments, always bought from Sears.
After Sears, it was on to next-door Friendly’s for lunch or dinner. I ordered the same meal every time — the fried clams platter, followed by mint chocolate chip ice cream. Then we’d stop at the camping goods store to buy scouting equipment, the bookstore for art and children’s books, and the pet store for dog’s toys and treats.
We followed nearly the same routine every trip to the mall. It was a family outing. More than that, it was a cultural experience shared by so many millions of middle-class Americans. To a kid growing up surrounded by forest and field, the mall — Sears in particular — represented the height of civilization.
It seems strange to write this all these years later, as we watch the slow death of the once mighty Sears. At its peak in the early 1970s, the company employed 350,000 people. When Kmart purchased Sears in 2004, Wall Street hedge fund manager Edward Lampert was appointed CEO of the new Sears Holdings Corporation. Over the next decade, the company’s revenue dropped precipitously, and 175,000 workers lost their jobs. Fewer than 50 Sears stores remain today.
Sears gave us a number of iconic American brands, including Kenmore Appliances, Craftsman Tools, Allstate Insurance and the Discover Card. From 1908 to 1940, Sears even sold kits enabling people to construct their own homes. Today some 70,000 to 75,000 of these houses, most in the Northeast and Midwest, dot the land, according to a 2016 Popular Mechanics article. Kits started at $450. Today many of these homes sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In so many ways, through so many decades, Sears was an innovator, a paragon of American capitalism that helped define the American landscape, even the American psyche. Sears was the go-to store for our ever-aspirational middle class.
What the heck happened?
Apparently, Walmart happened, then Amazon. Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart Stores in 1962 as a discount chain. By 1990 it had become the world’s largest retailer. Walmart has never been about the shopping experience, about shared cultural identity, the way Sears and other such retailers once were. It has always been about selling goods at the lowest prices. With middle-class wages starting to stagnate in the early 1970s, shopping was no longer a pleasure-seeking experience for many, but an existential crisis.
From 1973 to 2013, the typical American worker’s productivity rose 74.4 percent, but that same worker’s hourly compensation increased a paltry 9.2 percent, or a quarter percent per year — hardly enough to keep pace with inflation, which was out of control in the 1970s and early ’80s, peaking at 12 to 13 percent per year before starting to decline in the mid-1980s and averaging 2 to 3 percent per year since 1993.
If you’re wondering why Americans abandoned Sears and other mall mainstays in favor of Walmart and, later, Amazon, it can all be summed up in a single word — price. No doubt, Sears executives made their blunders. At some point, the retailer stopped innovating. The Sears that I first strolled through as a child was pretty much the same Sears that my wife and I shopped in for appliances when we bought our Merrick home in 2002.
Economic forces beyond the company’s control, though, were largely to blame.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.