Where Have You Gone Mr. Roebuck?

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Does anyone remember Toughskins jeans?

I do. The memory of this ugly fabric covering the lower half of my body was burned into my brain along with all the other unendurable indignities an early teen must suffer. While everyone else wore Levi’s, I was stuck in these God-awful red or green-colored pants that had the wrong stitching design on the rear pockets, and they were about as cool as my father’s canary yellow Datsun B-210.

Why was I so cursed? Because my mom shopped at Sears for every piece of my family’s clothing, and most other items, either at the store or through the catalog. The stores were convenient in that they had everything from 12-foot aluminum row boats (another Olenick family purchase that my brother still possesses) to shoes. And, most importantly, the products were reasonably priced.

However, it seems the days when Sears was the destination store for America’s moms is long gone and I cannot figure out why.

To some extent I still follow my mom’s lead because it is still convenient and has just about everything one might need. I am kinder to my own children, but I now understand the need for decent, inexpensive clothes. However, if the chain’s latest financial report and my own recent Sears experience is any indicator, I am one of the few who still has a relevant use for the chain.

There is a very large Sears less then one mile from my house (now carrying name-brand clothing that I’m not embarrassed to wear) that I visit periodically because, despite the lack of Toughskins, Sears has great deals on shirts and pants.

So off I went last weekend. As it turned out I was at the door about 10 minutes before opening time on Saturday, so I hung out with a security guard who gave myself and the other handful of waiting customers an entertaining show containing a steady stream of very funny, self-deprecating remarks about his career at Sears.

“15 years here and they still don’t invite me to the morning managers meeting. I’d tell them the right way to run this place.

“Hey, do you want this rider mower? I think I can fit it into the back of your car if you give me cash.”

Jay Leno he was not, but it helped pass the time for all of us.

Interestingly, he asked each of us what we were there to buy, and of the four people, I was the only one looking to make a purchase. Two were going to pay a credit card bill and the other was making a return.

It was pretty sad state of affairs for a retailer whose name at one time was synonymous with family shopping.

Since I’m at least tangentially involved in retail, I figured I would wander around the store to see if I could decipher a reason for this total lack of interest in actually shopping at this store.

I found the store was clean and well stocked; the displays were not dazzling, but they were nice enough. The CE area is quite large and smartly located adjacent to the hardware/outdoor departments, prime male customer attractors. The associate who took my money was pleasant and said, “Thank you.”

I was stumped. It really looked nice.

It was also totally empty.

Being early on a Saturday morning I would not expect much foot traffic, but this is how the store always looks. Now I’m drawing a conclusion from just one store, but if Sears’ CEO Aylwin Lewis remarks today are more indicative of the company’s situation, then Sears could be beyond repair.

Perhaps if Mr. Lewis spent some time with the security guards he could pick up a few tips.

In the end, I wonder if the world has simply passed by Sears and people now look at the chain as I now consider my old, oddly colored jeans: a quaint, if somewhat uncomfortable, memory.


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