Thursday, January 23, 2014

Another one bites the dust

First of all let me be blunt: the Sears store on State Street in downtown Chicago really sucks. It was badly designed from the get go, is poorly stocked, and the salespeople who work there are woefully ignorant about the few items they actually do stock. At least that has been my experience for let's say... oh about every single time I shopped there. While I've been there on countless occasions hoping against hope I might find something I need, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I actually bought something there. Every time I'd go back thinking: "well I'll just give this place one more chance" ...and they have never failed to disappoint. That's some record. The piece de resistance was the time I visited their hardware section. If Sears is known for anything, it's hardware. I was looking for nails. Despite the fact that they carried hammers in all shapes and sizes, presumably for the purpose of pounding nails, the response I got when I interrupted a sales clerk who was busy engaged in a personal conversation with another clerk was: "no, we don't carry nails." I don't think I've been back since.

I can safely say all this now because the company that owns Sears has just announced plans to close the flagship State Street location in April of this year. This particular store opened up in 2001 after the Chicago insititution's nearly twenty year absence from State Street. The opening of the new store at State and Madison in the building that once housed the Boston Store was a welcome surprise for several generations of Chicagoans who had only known of great department stores closing on the great street, not opening up. And while the new store was certainly a disappointment, barely a shadow of the old one between Van Buren and Congress Streets, at least it was something.

I wrote about Sears and its parent company a few years ago. You can find that piece here. In a nutshell, Sears and Kmart, two struggling national icons were bought up by corporate raiders whose main interest was to sell off vast holdings of real estate belonging to those two companies, earning a fortune for themselves and their stockholders in the process. The name they chose for their corporation was appropriately enough, Sears Holdings. They did pretty good for themselves until the real estate market crashed a few years ago, at which point the honeymoon with their stockholders was over. In the meantime, the stores bearing the Sears and Kmart brands continued to flounder, the victims of changing economic times and corporate indifference.

It's hardly a surprise that yet another "brick and mortar" retail establishment is closing its doors; admittedly it's a very hard business to maintain in these days of convenient, low-overhead, discount, on-line shopping. Yet for the past thirty years or so, it hasn't seemed as if Kmart or Sears were even trying. In that time, very little effort has been put into making the stores up to date. Walking into a Sears or Kmart today is no different than walking into one thirty years ago, except that every year there are fewer and fewer customers. As for the unmotivated employees, one might argue that it's hard to find enthusiastic people to work in retail because of the low wages they are offered. However one only needs to cross the street to the new Target or any other comparable store to find employees who are more than willing to go out their way (at least a little) to help customers. I'm guessing those folks wearing red don't earn any more than their counterparts across the street. Indifferent employees are a sure sign of an indifferent company.

It's only speculation but it seems likely that the reason so little effort has gone into improving Sears and Kmart is because the mission of their parent corporation is selling off real estate, not selling refrigerators, tires and nails. The retail stores are merely window dressing, the public face of the corporation. As long as there are buildings somewhere that bear the name Sears or Kmart, investors will have a modicum of confidence in Sears Holdings. Without the stores, all will be lost, and the way things have been going for the corporation, that fate looks more and more certain.

As I concluded in my previous piece, the stockholders will go on to find other investment opportunities while employees, consumers and businesses who depend upon those stores, and the people of the city of Chicago will be left holding the bag.

This isn't exactly the trickle down economics that the right wing drools over. This is the old story of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer; unfettered capitalism (as Rush Limbaugh calls it) at its ugliest.

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