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.


  1. Sears' softlines have languished with lackluster merchandising and poor quality for the price range and conservative selection. The hardlines which Sears has become synonomous are still among the best sellers in their categories, but the big box stores and home improvement stores keep margins low for these categories while Sears has spun off its credit, real estate, and insurance subsidiaries for cash infusions.
    JCPenney has made soflines their focus, which is a large part of their revitalization, it has resulted in a more contemporary store experience and provides higher margins.

    It's a shame their are virtually no Sears from this era anymore. The typical mall Sears is relative bland and a relic of the late 60's-mid 80's era of look alike malls. While dated, the look would be more unique than SearsMallMart look found today. I particularly like the Googie-esque escalator in the Nashville picture. The future is today, come on up and see what's in store for the modern family shopper at Sears.

  2. Love the mid-century mod furniture!

    What was Avery smoking in thinking there would be a depression after WWII? Hunh?

    Let's hope Sears DOES NOT follow in Wards' footsteps.

  3. I agree that Penneys has undergone a great resurgence and has risen well to the challenge posed by Kohl's. And they've done it largely through the "White Sale" favorites, always a strength - linens, towels, bedding, etc., and through updating their line of clothing. My kids like their clothes, which is something I certainly couldn't have said a few years ago.

    Sears has suffered from a bland image for over three decades now. It needs some store design and merchandising spark (I agree soft lines are key), and to my mind is still fixable at this point, but they can't wait much longer.

    Didi - One reason frequently given was his age - 80 at a time when nearly all companies shoved their execs out the door between 60 and 65.

    The more likely reason, to me, is the fact that Avery had steered Wards through the depression so successfully - Wards was sitting on a mountain of cash while most competitors were struggling big time or going under totally in the 30's. He was trying for a repeat performance, but times had changed.

  4. Sears got into major shopping centers fairly early and its Homart real estate subsidiary became a major mall developer (often as a partner with other, regional developers). Wards came to major metropolitan areas later and rarely got into Class A plazas or malls.

    Sears also operated small hard goods stores in urban neighborhoods and larger hard goods stores in the suburbs. These tended to supplement their big stores. The suburban locations were developed in the 50s; the neighborhood stores probably started earlier. The smaller ones were oriented around paint and tools. The larger ones usually had auto centers, large auto parts selections and departments like lighting and plumbing. Both types of stores had catalog desks. the small stores seemed to disappear in the late 60s/early 70s. The bigger ones either got converted into full-line stores or disappeared by the 80s. The full-line urban stores from the 20s and 30s seemed to last until the 70s or early 80s. A few continued longer, particularly those in regional distribution facilities. there are still several in the city of Chicago--6 Corners, Lawrence Avenue, and Stony Island.

  5. I always liked the clothes from both Sears and JC Penney. Sears though isn't so great in teh fashion department anymore as tehy try to mock the cheap crap from Kohl's. Not good. JC Penney still does well with the fashions.

  6. Hi ... love these pics. As I remember from my Sears store in Vineland, N.J. (a "B" size store), the colors in the Sears catalog department pic are way off since it appears they badly colorized a B&W photo. The countertop should be off-white and the sides should be in brown to match the (Formica-like) woodtone; same with the display-case frames and similar accents, plus the wall coloring would be more accurate as off-white or cream. Also, the spotlight lamps would be gold-tone.

    I have great fondness for Sears as my father worked there repairing electronics from '58-87. He took great pride in his work on "Silvertone" and other Sears-brand electronics.

  7. Truth and Consequences -

    Thanks for sharing your Sears memories! I'm pretty sure it's a real color photo, but this one's typical of the oversaturated color you sometimes see in 50's publications. I have another photo of an early 60's Sears catalog counter where the colors are different still, so they must have used a number of different color and decor schemes.

    Your father definitely worked there during a golden era. I miss the turquoise colored Sears service trucks that seemed to be everywhere in the 60's and 70's.

    Interesting that you mentioned the "B" designation. I plan to talk about the A-B-C classifications Sears used in my upcoming post. The Daytona store in the most recent post is a "B" store as well.

  8. The escalator has to be my favorite shot here. It looks so much like the one in the Sears Town I mentioned in the other post, right down to the bright orange wallpaper.

  9. Love those shots...the only photo missing is the most important part of my experience going to Sears...the candy and popcorn counter! Walking into any Sears (here in Los Angeles anyway) you where immediately hit with a big shot of Carmel and popcorn scent when you walked in there!

    Thanks for the great blog!

  10. I love to see these old stories and old pictures. It really means alot to be going back and looking at these. Young people today should take pictures, because in 40 years, it will change again. I remember McLellan's in Nashville, TN downtown...would love to hear stories of others who remember or have pictures.

  11. My father worked for Sears during the 60's and 70's as a merchandise manager. I would love to see all the pictures you have!!!