Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sears Oakbrook Center, 1962

Here’s a unique Sears store from one of my all-time favorite malls, Oakbrook Center, which is located in Chicago’s Western Suburbs. This store, which opened along with the rest of the mall in March 1962, was designed by famed architect Richard Marsh Bennett, who also designed many of the mall’s other structures (including the exterior of the Oakbrook Jewel Food Store, featured in one of this site’s earliest posts). Bennett originally gained fame by designing the very influential Old Orchard Shopping Center, which opened in Skokie, Illinois four years earlier.

Definitely one of the Chicago area’s most successful malls, Oakbrook Center has been expanded many times yet has always managed to maintain the clean, timeless look and feel of the original 1962 concept. I would contrast it with Golf Mill, (another favorite, with a Sears of course) located in near NW suburban Niles, which lost its very charming outdoor concourse (including a wooden miniature “mill”) when it was enclosed in the 1980’s. Oakbrook has remained for the most part an “outdoor” mall, and in a delicious irony seems even more contemporary given the trend of recent years away from enclosed malls.

The Sears store with its distinctive aggregate fa├žade still exists, with some notable changes – the dual script logos were replaced with a single 60’s style serif logo (in the center) many years back. This logo was replaced with the 1990’s block letter logo, which it still currently sports. A central entrance has replaced the dual entrances and many of the windows are now covered. The natural tan color of the aggregate has been painted over (gray) and a blue accent bar has been added across the full width. Sadly, the exquisite metalwork and lighting are gone, replaced with large, round cement columns, which I presume may have been done for structural reasons.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Signature of Sears

If you are around 30 years old or so, you probably have some good memories of shopping at Sears. If you’re over 40, chances are they’re great memories. The sights (and smells) of the Sears “experience” , if it may be called that – the “Karnival Korner” candy and popcorn stands, the smells from which permeated a large portion of the store, the toy department, bringing the Christmas “Wish Book” home (and making your Christmas list up from it), tagging along with your dad in the huge Craftsman tool department, buying new Perma-Prest clothes at the start of the school year – the memories go on and on for many of us. It all contributed to a kind of “homey” image for Sears when looking back on it.

The architectural design of many of these stores was anything but homey, however, and by the late fifties Sears began to receive a fair amount of recognition for their unique store designs. The first four photos are of a brand new Sears store in Tampa, Florida, as profiled in Architectural Forum in 1958. The article expounds on the “W-shaped sections” which compose the store’s roofline and the “shell-concrete folds, turned up at the edges” on the auto center. Interesting stuff!

Sears was set up at the time in five major regions, with regional headquarters in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Dallas. While the interior layouts were standardized to a large extent within the A-B-C classifications and the basic size of the each store determined with the guidance of headquarters, the individual regions were given a great deal of autonomy in determining the exterior design (usually engaging high-profile architects from their region) and construction materials used for each store. This enabled the company to adapt each store’s appearance to the local area and made for a fascinating variety of looks when viewed in groups, as I plan to show over the next few posts.

Here is a link to a nice color postcard view of the Tampa store on Flickr, where the poster has provided some great history and current status for the store. Nice to know this one’s still standing and has been put to good use. Wish it was still a Sears, though.

Pictured below is a special addendum to the previous post, a great line drawing ad for the Roanoke, VA Sears Town (pictured in the last post)as published in a special book commemorating the city’s Diamond Jubilee in 1957. This ad appears courtesy of Steven Swain, Virginia native and author of two great blogs, LiveMalls, which features great mall photos and commentary and Steve’s Blog, where he covers a wide variety of topics, including retail. Steven worked on a redevelopment of the store some years back, and he gives us some great background info on the store which can be read in the comments section of the previous post. Thanks, Steven!

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!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sears - Daytona Beach, Florida 1955

These day and night photos are of a new Sears store opened in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1955. The store was located at the intersection of Beach Street and 3rd Avenue, just off of the west end of the Broadway Bridge (U.S. 92, which traverses the Intercoastal Waterway) and across from Riverfront Park. The building still exists.

The last two photos are detail shots of two of the store entrances showing the famous “Satisfaction Guaranteed or your money back” slogan, which graced Sears entrances through at least the early nineteen-seventies. Many examples of this can still be seen on Sears stores today.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Mid-50's Inside Look at Sears

A set of interior views typical of larger Sears stores from the mid-1950's. From the end of World War II up to that time, the company opened over 100 stores in new locations and had relocated more than twice that number of existing stores to larger, suburban facilities.

Sears’ sales by this time were more than double that of their arch competitor, Montgomery Ward. Their approach to expansion under the leadership of General Wood was diametrically opposed to the extremely conservative stance of Ward under their nearly 80-year old president Sewell Avery. Avery predicated Ward’s go-slow approach on his firm belief that America faced the strong possibility of another depression in the years following WWII. Obviously, this did not materialize, and Avery’s caution, which had served Ward so well during the 1930’s now held the company back. Avery was finally forced into retirement in 1955, and Ward would impressively ramp up their growth in the very late 50’s and early 60’s, but would continue to be dominated by Sears (in 1958, J.C. Penney would pass Ward as number two, but that’s another story).

Another key edge for Sears in competing with Montgomery Ward was their much broader offering of hard lines – tools, sporting goods, lawn and garden equipment and so on. A major tenet of Sears’ merchandising approach was the belief that they needed to provide items of interest to male shoppers to peruse while their wives shopped. This philosophy would eventually lead to the development of the Ted Williams line of sports and fishing equipment and later the (Sir Edmund) Hillary line of camping gear. Sears also placed a much heavier emphasis on large appliance sales with their Kenmore and Coldspot lines. Sears' Coldspot line, for example, was manufactured by Whirlpool and was America’s largest selling freezer line for many years. Ward was much slower to diversify beyond their traditional soft lines.

Most of the photos are circa 1956, including the great shot of the towel display, showing an array of diamond-pattern towels that would be welcome in many a retro fan’s home, the Silvertone radio and TV display, the quinessential Craftsman tool department and the great boating line-up. Sears’ Elgin brand outboards were made during this time by West Bend manufacturing. The escalator shot, from the Nashville, Tennessee store is from a couple of years earlier. The catalog order counter (a fixture of Sears stores large and small) and the paint department views are slightly more recent.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sears, Roebuck and America

Sears didn't have a single retail location for nearly the first forty years of its existence. Founded in 1886 by Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck, the company established its initial reputation and fame as a “catalog supply house”, shipping all manner of goods to (mostly rural) locations all over the country from its Chicago headquarters. Along with its chief competitor Montgomery Ward, founded eight years earlier and also based in Chicago, Sears sold a vast variety of clothing, tools, books and Bibles, farm supplies, livestock, camping supplies, groceries and on and on out of a huge catalog, issued annually, often exceeding 1000 pages, and selling for 50 cents to $1 at a time when that was a fair amount of money. By the early 30’s, catalog volume had grown so much that the company had added distribution “plants” in Kansas City, Atlanta, Memphis, Los Angeles and several other cities to augment the output of their Chicago home base.

Alvah Roebuck retired in 1895 (he would return to the company in a PR role for a brief period in the early 1930’s after some personal financial reversals), selling out his interest to Sears. That year, Sears took on a new partner, Julius Rosenwald, who infused the company with badly needed cash and installed a system of management controls that would help facilitate Sears’ phenomenal growth in the coming decades. The most important move Rosenwald made had nothing to do with policies or procedures, however, but with the hiring of an individual, General Robert Elkington Wood, who would reshape the direction and destiny of the company.

A West Point grad who would as part of his military career help oversee the excavation of the Panama Canal, Wood would retire from the military after World War I as a Brigadier General, beginning a career in 1919 with Montgomery Ward. Wood observed early on that the American population was migrating from rural to urban life. He pushed Ward to open store locations to take advantage of this trend, which they began to do at an exceedingly slow place and chose, to Wood’s chagrin, to use the stores as a dumping ground for inferior merchandise and closeouts. Frustrated by what he saw as resistance to his ideas at Ward, Wood was receptive when Sears’ Rosenwald came calling. Wood hired on at Sears as a Vice President in 1924. Four years later, he was named president and in 1939, he would become company chairman.

In 1925 Sears opened its first store in a corner of their Chicago mail-order plant. Wood saw to it that more stores followed at a fast pace, giving Sears a total of over 350 stores by 1930. The following year, 1931, store sales overtook catalog sales for the first time. Sears continued to open retail stores aggressively through the start of World War II, when (as with most all chains) new construction ground to a halt by necessity.

Another Wood initiative was the introduction of a line of tires (initially manufactured for Sears by Goodyear) and automotive accessories under the brand name “Allstate” in the late 1920’s. A most unusual extension of the Allstate product line was introduced in 1931 – car insurance. The Allstate Insurance Company, at Wood’s behest, was set up as a wholly-owned subsidiary that year, and for its first 25 years sold only auto insurance. In the late 1950’s, Allstate wrote its first life insurance policy. By the early 60’s, Allstate was a billion-dollar business in and of itself.

Once WWII ended, Wood, true to form, pushed Sears to the forefront of postwar retail expansion. Three major factors, among others, were now in play – first, a large percentage of the population was now shifting from urban locales to rapidly-growing suburban areas. Secondly, major regional shopping centers and the earliest malls were now being built, and thirdly, the explosive growth of the Southern, Southwestern and Pacific Coast markets begged increased presence there. Sears, under Wood’s leadership and that of his hand-picked successors, rose to the challenge in all three respects.

General Wood retired from the chairmanship of Sears in 1954. The next year, Wood was the first living individual to be named to the Retailing Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of John Wanamaker, George Huntington Hartford (founder of A&P) and Marshall Field, among other legends. Wood remained an active member of Sears’ board until 1968. He then became “Honorary Chairman”, a designation he held until he passed away at the age of 90 in 1969. Wood was posthumously honored alongside Marshall Field in the naming of northwest suburban Chicago’s massive Woodfield Mall, (which was co-developed by Sears and opened in 1971), a fact that is probably lost on most Woodfield shoppers and was something I was certainly unaware of during the years I shopped there.

The photos above are circa 1951, and show some of the larger Sears stores opened in the first few years of Sears’ postwar boom, a period that to my observation appears to have extended through the late sixties, give or take a few years. The first photo is of the North Hollywood store (here’s a color close-up), the second is of the San Francisco store on Geary Blvd., which a commenter on the previous post kindly informs had a restaurant on the top level and is now a Best Buy/Mervyn’s combination. The remaining stores, in order, are from Dayton, OH, Raleigh, NC, Wilmington, DE, Waco, TX, and Springfield, MA. Note the "Allstate" auto center in the last photo.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The All-Weather Sears

Two views of classic Sears stores from the early nineteen-sixties - the Anchorage, Alaska store, which opened in 1966, and a Phoenix, Arizona store which opened four years earlier. Sears took a backseat to no one in terms of architectural design, variety and quality of construction during the postwar go-go years (or in many pre-war examples, for that matter). Fortunately, a decent number of these stores still stand, through the original signage long ago disappeared on nearly all of them. I’d love to know the fate of these two stores.

Would you trudge through the snow to visit the first one or brave the desert to visit the second? If they still looked like this, I might consider it!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The After Hours - Bradlees/Stop & Shop

One last look at Bradlees and Stop & Shop for now - here’s a night view from 1967 featuring Stop & Shop’s distinctive new logo, one the company would use into the 1980’s. The further refinement of the combo concept is nicely in evidence here. The difference in lighting styles between the discount store and the supermarket sections, described in detail in the article quoted in the previous post, can be clearly seen.

Stop & Shop would continue to grow through the seventies and eighties, and for nearly all of that period it remained under the leadership of the Rabb family. Sidney Rabb passed away in 1985, after leading the company for fifty years. Greatly respected by his peers, the Food Marketing Institute had previously named its highest honor the Sidney R. Rabb award, which is still awarded each year to “honor supermarket industry leaders for outstanding service to the community, consumers, and the industry”. After Rabb’s death, Stop & Shop was led by Rabb’s daughter, Carol Goldberg, who became president and chief operating officer, and her husband Avram Goldberg, who was named board chairman. Both Goldbergs had spent nearly 30 years working for the company by that time. In 1988, the company was America’s ninth largest supermarket chain with 114 Stop & Shops (in New England and upstate New York) and 171 Bradlees stores spread from Maine to North Carolina. Many Bradlees stores had opened in former Two Guys locations after that chain’s demise in 1982. Thirteen DC-area Memco stores were picked up from Lucky Stores, Inc. in 1982. The 18 southernmost Bradlees stores were purchased in 1985 from Jefferson Ward, a 44-store division of Montgomery Ward (which believe it or not was owned at the time by Mobil Oil Corporation) that was based in Miami.

Family control of Stop & Shop would come to an end in early 1988, spurred on by a hostile takeover attempt by the Dart Group, parent of now-defunct retail brands Trak Auto and Crown Books, among others. Dart was led by Herbert Haft and his son Robert, who would later become embroiled in an infamous family feud that lit up the business pages for a couple of years. To thwart the Hafts, Stop & Shop accepted a buyout offer from Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, a leveraged buyout firm specializing in retail turnaround. KKR would operate Stop & Shop for eight years, streamlining the company (including trimming back Bradlees), taking it public again, and ultimately selling their remaining interest to the current owners, Dutch-owned Royal Ahold group. Ahold has invested heavily in Stop & Shop, reentering and moving into a very strong position in the New York/New Jersey markets, and maintaining rank in its traditional New England trade areas.

Following the KKR buyout, the southern division of Bradlees, some 50-plus stores, was sold to Hechinger, a Washington DC based home center chain, who opened their own stores in some of the locations. The rest of the Bradlees organization was spun off as a separate company in 1992, coinciding with a stock offering of Stop & Shop from KKR around the same time.

While Stop & Shop has prospered, Bradlees, after years of struggling against competition that included Kmart (which in the mid-90’s rode a short-lived mini wave of success with their new Martha Stewart line) and the ever-stronger Wal-Mart, declared bankruptcy. Sadly, the last Bradlees stores ceased operations in early 2001.

Just for fun, below is another photo from Bradlees high-water mark, taken at the same time (1967) as the photo above. Like previous Korvettes and Two Guys photos shown here, the scene is rife with mannequins, something not commonly associated with discount stores today. To me it almost appears creepy, and brings to mind the famous “Twilight Zone” episode (entitled “The After Hours” ) in which a store’s mannequins all come to life after closing time. Yaaah!