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JACK WEATHERLY — Sears: From the broken hatchet to the lost empire

By Jack Weatherly

The grumpy old man brought in the hatchet with a chunk missing from the blade. He wanted a new hatchet, and didn’t want to pay for it.

Fine, the hardware department manager said and walked to the proper bin and handed the man a brand-new Craftsman hatchet. The manager, whose name, you’ll forgive me, I cannot remember after all those intervening years, did the transaction all in a day’s work. He was fulfilling the famous Satisfaction Guaranteed motto of what was for the longest the world’s biggest retailer. Those were the good old days at Sears. I was a green college student studying business, learning about the work place and getting paid a little. The Sears at Crosstown at Memphis was a 10-story, 1.5 million-square foot retail and catalogue-order distribution center. The art deco building with its signature tower, still dominates crosstown Memphis. Another time, I worked in the men’s clothing department, learning how to use a tape measure to make sure things fit right, I offered selections on slacks, jackets, shirts and socks. We even offered tailored suits, though we’d send those out to real craftsmen. And I learned about the Sears motto and operating slogan. And I also heard of the fabulous retirement system, which was the reward at the end of the career rainbow in payment for a lifetime of dedication and modest paychecks. Sears has been disappearing for decades. This week, the company announced it would file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11, and hopes to survive as a “restructured” and “more efficient,” meaning smaller, business. In the past 10 years, it closed or sold 1,700 stores, 60 percent of its outlets, according to The Wall Street Journal. Its past 25 years have seen it surpassed by Walmart as the top retailer, and further made less of a retail player by Amazon. Since the days of the fabled and gargantuan Sears Catalogue, America’s “Wish Book,” from which seemingly anything from a complete house kit, vacuum cleaners, to tools, clothes, home appliances, lawn equipment ad infinitium could be ordered. Later came the stores, which, which eventually carried company brands Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools. The first store was opened in 1925 in Chicago. The Memphis mammoth opened two years later. The next five or so decades were the glory years. That was before it started diversifying, becoming a lender by offering the Discover card, entering the insurance field by acquiring Allstate and real estate through Coldwell Banker. As one observer put it, “they took their eye off the ball.” “The bankruptcy filing threatens to put many of roughly 70,000 employees out of work and throw the financial security of its 100,000 pensioners into doubt,” The Journal reported. The company’s list of closures does not include any Mississippi outlets. The Memphis colossus? It lay vacant for a quarter of a century, until last year, when it reopened as the Crosstown Concourse, a “mixed use vertical urban village.”   » Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.


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About Jack Weatherly

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