Thursday, February 21, 2008

The ABC's of Sears

One of the most significant keys to Sears’ success was the company’s ability to provide the appropriate size and type store for each community they did business in. General Wood, having successfully launched Sears’ initial entry into the retail store field, realized early on that a “one size fits all” approach wouldn’t work.

A strategy to develop three primary basic types of Sears stores was put in place. First there would be the “A” stores, termed by the company as “Complete Department Stores”. These stores were generally over 100,000 square feet and often approached 250,000 square feet, carrying the complete line of Sears merchandise. The A stores in the early postwar years were usually large, free-standing stores, with an auto center either attached or adjacent. As major shopping centers and large malls came into the picture in the 1950’s, the A stores were more often seen as part of those. The A stores were often of a more elaborate architectural design, especially in the very late fifties and throughout the sixties when a number of Sears store designs were strikingly impressive.

The second group, known of course as the “B” stores, were aptly called “Medium-Sized Department Stores”. The B category covered a wide range of store sizes, from footprints as small as 25,000 (or less) to the 100,000 square foot range. Here the merchandise mix varied widely as well, depending on local tastes, but usually with a strong emphasis on appliances and hard lines. This variance extended to the exterior design of the B stores. Many were as elaborate-looking as the A stores, while others were of more modest appearance. Like the A stores, most of the B’s were built as part of shopping centers or malls as the 1950’s rolled on. Some, not all, had auto centers. In the late 50’s, the “B-1” designation was created to differentiate the larger, more comprehensively stocked B stores.

The rationale for placing an A or a B store in a given location was often cut from a fine demographic cloth, and it was not at all uncommon for an A store to be placed in a major mall in a smaller town while a B store could be found in a smaller mall within a large city.

The “C” designation stood for “Smaller Hard Lines Stores”, and these primarily offered appliances, tools, sporting goods and automotive items. Far smaller than the other two store types, the C stores had much more of a plain “storefront” appearance and were typically found in urban street locations, rural downtown locations or in suburban strip shopping centers. A short-lived experiment in the 1970’s saw the addition of some clothing and soft lines to a handful of the larger, more remote C stores. These came to be known as “Z” stores. A small number of appliance-only “D” Stores existed for a time as well.

Most of these photos are from the 1958-59 timeframe. Top to bottom, the locations are: Memphis, Tennessee on Poplar Avenue (which is still a Sears), Ogden, UT, New Orleans, LA, Roanoke and Newport News, VA, Rockford, IL , Oklahoma City, OK (a bit older, circa 1955), St. Matthews (Louisville), KY (building still exists), and Fort Lauderdale, FL. I know that Memphis is an A store, Rockford and Louisville were B's. Roanoke and Newport News appear to be B's from the photos, the others I'm not certain of. The kicker for me in this group is the Memphis store. I made a great many business trips to Memphis in the early 90's, and the cool script logos were in place until at least 1995. Now replaced, of course. *Sigh*.

Speaking of Sears, and we were, my friend Didi has posted a couple of photos of a great old pre-1930 Sears store which amazingly is still operating on Chicago’s North Side. Her blog is entitled “Bright Lights, Dim Beauty of Chicago” and covers a great, eclectic variety of subjects. You don’t have to be from Chicago (like me) to enjoy it. Everywhere I go, I run into people who have a warm spot for the Windy City. Give it a click!


  1. Lawrence was/is like a "B" store, whereas the somewhat newer and more impressive 6 Corners store would be considered an "A". Although people complain about the weather, it's easy to have a warm spot for Chicago--NYish amenities w/o the stress and far less attitude and phoniness than West Coast cities, as well as more character and livability than most places in the Sunbelt.

  2. Though it wasn’t as elaborate as some of the featured stores, the Roanoke Sears was a rather stunning building, especially in the early years.

    It was a Sears Town, with an attached Kroger supermarket that lasted into the ‘70s, and a detached auto center. There was also another shopping strip across the street that was technically part of Sears Town, but was of a very modest design with a Roses variety store and Peoples Drug (later Revco)

    The main, two story, portion of the building was covered in beige marble and glass windows with stainless steel trim on the street level. The upper story had an interlocking system of concrete panels that were trimmed at the top and bottom with turquoise aluminum. The one story Kroger and Farm & Garden departments were marble and glass as well, but had side walls of red brick that wrapped around to the front façade.

    One of the coolest features was the bus stop with its covered walkway to the main entrance, which your photo showed quite well. The cover was removed at some point, but the walkway is still there. About the same time, most of the street level windows were covered with aggregate panels, though in later years, many of those windows were uncovered.

    This store met its demise with the opening of Valley View Mall in 1985, and was sold by Sears to the mall developers for just under $1 million. The developers in turn sold it to a local businessman, who incidentally was one of Sears’ employees when it opened in 1957.

    After Sears, the building was turned into a rather crude mini-mall, then into a social services complex with retail space on the street level, and postal facility in the former warehouse.

  3. Newcomer to the site...I'm a Malls of America refugee waiting for Keith Milford to come out of hiding and update his blog.....Great site though so far! I'm a retail nostalgia nut I tell ya! I'm in New Jersey...we have an "A" Sears at the Ocean County mall in TomsRiver and its been there i would say....32 years. It has someof the old lettering on one part of the building...not the blue block letters but the solid black in this font SEARS like that and the other blue block letters as well...its a mishmash of them. There is also an "A" store in Freehold Raceway Mall...its a two level...and its fairly young as far as Sears stores go...only about 17 years I think. There was another "A" one as well at the now defunct Seaview Square mall in Neptune. That was what I would call an A plus if there was such a description to exist. It was 2 floors with an auto center, portrait studio AND a HAIR SALON!!!!!!! plus it had a candy counter and pop corn machine....this store was Heaven on Earth! to a little closed I beleive in 2000-01

  4. Anonymous - Which intersection(s) is the "6 corners" store on?

    Steven - Thanks for the history and background of this store! Must have been something to see in its heyday.

    Pika23 - Welcome, and thanks for the info on the NJ area stores. I was recently in Toms River. Great town!

  5. Thank you so much for the link, Dave. I would say your Sears photos are much better than mine though.

    Funny thing is, that my family who lives in NYC don't really have much of a warm spot for Chicago. My cousin especially does not like to come visit here and when he does he spends the entire time complaining about what a slow city Chicago is, although he does enjoy some of the photos I put up. I bribed him by telling him that I would take him to an amazing Thai place here if he would extend for a visit. He said he would, so maybe the next time he will change his mind. Heh, heh, heh, I will take him to the Sears on Lawrence for an experience trapped in time.

  6. Cicero, Irving Park and Milwaukee is where the six corners store is.

  7. Didi, what, these old things? :)
    (Kidding, of course. I'm fortunate to have found them.)

    Hopefully the Thai restaurant or the ancient Sears will turn your cousin's opinion around. Seems to me that some of my NY-based family felt the same way about Chicago, and it took a while for their 'warm spot' to warm up. It helped once I convinced them we didn't have cornstalks growing between the buildings.

  8. Why are New Yorkers so hostile when the word Chicago is mentioned? LOL!

  9. Out here in the Philadelphia, area, we had a few of the "A" style stores. The very first one was located at the long-demolished Sears Catalog Warehouse that was located at Roosevelt Boulevard & Adams Avenue, then followed by the 63rd & Market Street and Adm. Wilson Boulevard stores.

    The first couple of "A" stores that opened in the 1960's includes: Price Corner, in Wilmington, DE, and at Neshaminy Mall, in Bensalem, PA. This Sears opened with the red "SEARS" lettering on it (These letters were replaced in the mid 1990's with the current style).

    Some of the later Sears that opened in the early 1990's includes: Cottman & Bustelton Avenue, Philadelphia; 69th & Walnut Street, Upper Darby (replaced the 63rd & Market Street location), and Oxford Valley Mall locations. These 3 locations were former Gimbel Brothers/Stern's locations that were sold off when Allied Stores & Federated merged.

    1. As a child, my mom took us to Sears at 63rd st in Phila. What a treat. We would shop for hours, break for lunch and resume shopping. My Dad would pick us up at 5 PM. My Mom and Dad and Sears are gone now, but what wonderful memories!! Thanks!

  10. Mike - Thanks for bringing us up to speed on the Phildelphia area Sears!

  11. any idea on who the architects for the Sear's prototypes were?