One final look at Sears for now, and this time we’ll move inside for a gander at some indoor entrances to Sears stores within the context of the far-out, groovy atmosphere of a couple of brand new circa 1971-2 malls, in photos taken when they were new. (Ok, those expressions were already dated by 1971, but what the hey…)
In my opinion, the real action from a design standpoint was inside the malls by this time; the exteriors of most new malls appearing fairly subdued compared to those that had opened in the previous decade. Subtle browns and tans began to prevail on the exteriors, while the mall interiors were a blitz of marquee lights, globed fixtures, exquisite fountains and wonderful modern sculpture. “The mall” had really come into its own by this time.
The first picture is of the Town East Mall, located in Mesquite (suburban Dallas), Texas, a mall developed and owned by Sears’ Homart Development subsidiary, one of – malls Homart developed in 1971. Town East was solely developed by Homart, but a number of other malls were developed in partnership with other companies, most notably Chicago’s gigantic Woodfield Mall, which Homart co-developed that same year with lead developer Taubman.
This mall, already impressive in appearance, is beautifully decked out for its first Christmas. If you look in the foreground of the picture, you can see two stores that absolutely scream “70’s!” - Love Is (Woodfield had one!) and Rings’n’Things. Ah, those were the days. Town East Mall was the site of partial filming for one of Ron Howard’s earliest films, the teen film "Cotton Candy” (featuring Howard’s brother and legendary sidekick Clint Howard) in 1978. The mall, complete with its Sears store, still exists.
The second photo is of Richmond, Virginia’s Cloverleaf Mall, where Sears was strictly an anchor tenant. This mall, opened in 1972, was owned by New York-based Arlen Realty and Development, one of the seventies’ major developers of malls, who at the time also held the (by then dubious) distinction of being Korvettes’ parent company. By the end of the decade, both Arlen and Korvettes would be no more.
Sears remained open at Cloverleaf for thirty years, moving to nearby Chesterfield Towne Center in 2002. The mall, profiled last year on Labelscar, has undergone some disappointing changes, namely the removal of the delicate, beautiful fountain work and a typical remodeling given to malls of this vintage – the deadly “country pink, tan and cream” tile treatment.
The mid and late 1970’s would prove to be difficult for Sears for a number of reasons. One reason, of course, was the general difficult economic environment of the time, with stagflation and the resulting major squeeze on consumer purchasing power. Another problem was an unforeseen result of a strategy that had actually served Sears pretty well up to that time.
The fifties and sixties saw Sears expand into virtually every market where an economic case could be made for it. Of course, this new store growth provided fuel for explosive sales and profit growth. By the mid-sixties, they were closing in on a saturation point, and continued expansion at the same pace would have required building in “marginal markets”, as author Gordon Weil put it in his excellent 1977 history “Sears Roebuck U.S.A.”.
In part to offset the effects of fewer new stores, Sears began a move toward more upscale merchandise at higher price points, figuring it made sense to move up the ladder with their customers as they became more affluent. Sears, whose reputation throughout its history was built on providing values to middle and lower middle income customers, now made a concerted effort to shift their offering to an upper middle class audience. High income families, of course, would remain out of reach, and Sears made no serious effort to go after them.
Another factor was that by the early seventies, the discounting arena had reached a certain level of maturity, with an array of strong regional competitors growing and marginal operators having been shaken out. King of the Hill was S.S. Kresge’s Kmart division, with national coverage and a base of 1,200 stores by 1976. Middle and lower middle income customers, the bedrock of Sears’ success for years, left Sears in droves for Kmart, and by the mid-70’s there was serious buzz that Kmart Corporation (S.S. Kresge changed its corporate name to that in 1976) had a shot at overtaking Sears for the number-one retailer slot.
Sears also found itself the target of increased criticism from the media than in the past. Weil's book provides an insightful quote from a 1974 Forbes article that aptly describes Sears' new strategy – “Imagine McDonald’s introducing a sirloin steak, raising the price of its Big Mac and withdrawing its plain hamburger. That was Sears’ growth strategy, namely, to ‘trade up America’, as some insiders put it.”
Sears struggled to regain an identity with the consumer, who had long since begun to look elsewhere. In a sense, even today, thirty years later and owing in part to today’s brutal retailing climate, the company remains in a similar position today. To be sure, the competitive landscape has changed – Kmart is now a sister company of Sears, and the company’s main adversaries are now Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl’s, among others.
In the 1990’s, Sears began to shed subsidiaries that were not directly related to their retail business. In 1993, the company spun off its Sears Financial Network, which included Dean Witter Investments, Coldwell Banker Realty, and the Discover Card (Sears’ attempt to create competitor to MasterCard and Visa which ultimately became a major success). Its longtime insurance division Allstate was spun off to shareholders as well in 1995. That same year, Sears’ mall-development and ownership division Homart was sold to General Growth Properties.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. as it was historically known ceased to exist on November 17, 2004, when it was announced that the company would be sold to billionaire investor Edward Lampert’s Kmart Holdings Corporation to be combined into a new entity that would be called, appropriately enough, Sears Holdings Corporation. A number of strategies have been implemented since, including some new nameplates - “Sears Essentials” and “Sears Grand”, and offering Sears’ products for sale in Kmart stores. Even now many possibilities are being considered, including making Sears’ powerful brand names (including Craftsman and Kenmore) available for sale through other retailers. Time will tell whether these efforts are successful.
Will Sears make it? I certainly hope so.