Monday, March 31, 2008

Snow Falling On Fazio's

An early 1971 view of a brand new suburban Cleveland Fazio’s supermarket. This store opened six years after the Fazio and Costa families had bought out the moribund Fisher Foods chain, which was at one time the dominant food chain in the area but by the early sixties had fallen on hard times. By the time the pictured store opened, the company (which still went by the official name of Fisher Foods) was well on their way back to the top.

This store, with its mansard shakeroof design, was typical of new Fazio’s stores of the 60’s and 70’s.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Late Sixties Sears Scenes

As the sixties drew to a close, Sears continued to reign as the world’s top retailer, and a respected American institution. Probably the highest profile evidence of this was the company’s bold plan to move to a new downtown Chicago headquarters, Sears Tower, construction of which would soon be underway. The tallest building in the world at the time, Sears would relocate there from its antiquated Homan Avenue headquarters in 1973. (Sears would relocate its offices from the Tower to a sprawling complex in suburban Hoffman Estates in the early/mid 90’s, but it continues to bear the company’s name). The Sears Tower’s observation deck has remained one of Chicago’s most popular tourist attractions since it first opened.

Of a more everyday nature, the photos above show typical Sears scenes from 1969. The first photo shows a Sears serviceman emerging from his turquoise service truck, carrying what looks to be a pretty heavy tool box. Sears had a huge fleet of these trucks nationwide, and they were a very common sight during my childhood. No doubt that Kenmore appliances and Silvertone electronics were big sellers in my neighborhood.

In the second photo, a label is carefully sewn into a dress, part of Sears’ monster-selling Winnie the Pooh product line. In 1966, Walt Disney released the short film “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree”, the first of three such films to be released in a six-year period under rights Disney had secured several years earlier. The Disney studio redesigned the Pooh characters from the original Ernest Shepard designs to a more modern and colorful appearance, one that can safely be said is far more familiar than the original to children today. A year earlier (1965) in a major coup, Sears snapped up exclusive merchandising rights (save for books and a relatively few other items) from Disney to the Pooh characters. Virtually every stuffed animal or clothing article sold outside of Disney parks for the next 30 years, if it featured a Pooh character, came from Sears. In the mid-90’s, mindful of the incredible popularity of the Pooh merchandise (estimated $1 billion value at the time, considerably greater than that of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck), Disney chose not to renew the Sears contract. Recently, a new line of Pooh merchandise has been introduced at Sears to great fanfare. Disney continues to market Pooh items through other channels, however.

The third photo shows a well-dressed couple checking out shag carpet in a selection of groovy colors, and the last photo is a close-up of the legendary legend which greeted customers above Sears’ entrances near and far. As mentioned previously, these are still commonly seen today in older Sears stores.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Greetings

A very nice Easter display featuring a cross standing atop a “hill” of Easter lilies (crossing the 'line of separation' between church and supermarket?) in this early 1960’s view from a Southern California Vons location. In-town rival Alpha Beta went the secular route that year, as seen below. These photos are from an early 60’s Progressive Grocer article about “Spring Merchandising Ideas”.
Hope you have a wonderful Easter!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Seattle Sears at Sunset

A lovely evening view of the brand-new Sears at Aurora Square in Shoreline, Washington, a suburb just north of Seattle. This store, which opened in September 1967 and still exists, featured a somewhat unusual in-line auto center. With most Sears stores of this size, they were detached. A considerably less dramatic photo shows the store as it appears today.

In 1967 Sears was near the peak of its power and influence, with over $7 billion in sales and profits at an all-time high. The effects of competition from the discounters (most notably future family member Kmart), which would become such a vexing problem for Sears in the coming decade, had yet to be felt in any meaningful sense.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Live from Korvette City!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled posts to bring you this special report live from the “Korvette City” in Baileys Crossroads, (near Arlington) Virginia in the metropolitan Washington, DC area!

Live in 1965, that is. This special footage was sent to me by Robyn Carter, an Arlington native, retro retail and postwar culture fan. Filmed in 8mm color in 1965 by Robyn’s grandmother, Izola Grubb, this footage comes to us through the courtesy of Robyn’s aunt, Sue Kuhlman, who worked there during the store’s early years. The clip, (twenty seconds long but looped three times to provide a longer look) shows a pan shot of the entire face of this 1964-built “Korvette City”, an integrated shopping center containing a Food Center, furniture and carpet store, and a two-story department store. An auto center would have been at the edge of the property.

Mrs. Grubb, an avid 8mm moviemaker, shot a large number of reels of family film over the years, and one day decided to film the exterior of the store where her daughter Sue worked. Oh, that more people would have done that kind of thing, especially during that era when stores looked so cool! It’s a wonderful look at not only the store in its prime (on a very busy day, you will observe), but the cars and even a couple of happy shoppers. Thanks so much, Sue and Robyn, for sharing it with us!

A little background on the Baileys Crossroads Korvette – the store, located at 1335 Leesburg Pike, opened on April 30, 1964 and was the second Korvette to be opened in the metro DC area, the first having opened in Rockville, Maryland. A newspaper account of opening day at the Baileys Crossroads store describes a “day-long traffic jam" that "stretched bumper to bumper from Alexandria nearly to Seven Corners on Rte. 7 and from the Arlington County line to Lake Bancroft on Columbia Pike". Wow! The grand opening of most any shopping center was a major event in those fairly innocent times, but Korvette (despite the nagging emergence of operating and profitability problems and home office turmoil) still enjoyed a hugely positive reputation with the public. A Korvette opening was definitely front page news in 1964.

A year after this store’s opening, Korvette would merge with Long Island-based Hill’s supermarkets to help stem a growing management crisis, and the supermarket portion would be redubbed “Hill’s/Korvette”. Sadly, only a year after that, Korvette would sell off their supermarkets altogether, with the DC area units going to Food Fair. The furniture and carpet store would go not long afterwards, but the main department store and auto center soldiered on for several more years. Korvettes (there was an “s” at the end of the name by this time) began to close stores in the late 70's and folded entirely in 1980.

Robyn was kind enough to film for us the shopping center as it exists today, shown below. The main anchors of the storied old Korvette City are now TJ Maxx and Burlington Coat Factory, two chains that often find homes in classic old shopping centers.

More Korvettes information can be found here, or you can search by other topics at the right of the page.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sears - Canoga Park, California 1964

On October 28, 1964, Sears opened the largest store in its history up to that time, a 300,000-plus square foot colossus in Canoga Park’s Fallbrook Square Shopping Center, located in the western reach of the San Fernando Valley. Complete with a massive Disney World-esque underground warehouse and service infrastructure, the store represented a major acknowledgment on Sears’ part of the sensational population growth of the Valley.

The store epitomizes Sears’ “western look”, with an elegant, low-slung appearance, complete with palm trees towering through openings in the store awnings and a huge, upswept Sears logo sign. This basic design, in a variety of colors and building materials, was used in a large number the company’s Western and Southwestern (and Florida - not western but definitely with palm trees) locations from the late 50’s through the mid 60’s. To me, and to the extent that architecture can (many would argue a great extent), it truly reflected the optimism of the times.

The following firsthand memories come to us from Valley resident Tim of Vintage Disneyland Tickets, a great website dedicated to preserving the history of the famous bygone “Ticket Books” (among other things) that were a staple of Disneyland and later of Walt Disney World until the early 1980’s, and fondly remembered by SoCal residents and a good many out-of-towners as well. The phrase “E-Ticket” to describe something superlative originated from these books. Tim worked at the Fallbrook Square store in the early 1980’s when the store was past its prime, but many vestiges of its glory days still remained. In Tim’s own words:

“I actually worked at Sears Canoga Park, California, 1980 -1982. I worked in customer service so I got to see the whole store inside and out. It looked very much like your Sears in Phoenix 1962 photo with the Palm Trees and Green script, but bigger. Part of "Fallbrook Square" (an outdoor mall on a huge parcel of land) the Canoga Park Sears was built in 1964/65 (I think) and was supposedly the largest Sears store at that time. It was huge. Besides the main store and basement (which had everything: Vendome, a Coffee shop, a candy shop with Icees, hearing aids, optical, Allstate, and more!), it had a separate and huge Garden Center & Catalog building, a HUGE 48 bay Auto Center with a free standing Gas Station, a little key making building and we even had the LA area credit central building on the property. The warehouse part of the basement was GIGANTIC, it spanned the entire store plus 1/2 the mall parking lot and it connected the store to all of automotive and the Garden center. It was like its own city. "Upstairs" from the main sales floor was a large area the size of a school auditorium and was just for employees, it had its own full service cafeteria and a stage!!!”

“By the time I worked there it was in some decline, the "upstairs" was not for employees any more (they held microwave classes up there!) and the employee mensroom was the real sign of better times. I kid you not, it had 20 urinals and 15 stalls! and about 20 sinks! I would change from my school clothes to my work clothes before my shift and I would be the only one in there! In 1981 we replaced the old "cord board" switchboard, that was a sad day, I love working that board. We also had the Bell System chimer box. You would set it to discretely page the managers, the GM on staff was a "2-1".... "ding-ding, ding".... They took it out when they put in the new switchboard, I should have tried to keep it! The store closed in the 90's, was turned into a Kmart and it’s now a Wal-Mart with an awful facade! The Basement was turned into a Burlington Coat Factory and it still there. The Auto Center was torn down and is now a Ralphs (where I shop!) and the Garden Center building is still there and is a 24 Hours fitness center (it still has some of the Shale stone siding that the store had!). That Sears was so big it’s four places now!”

Tim also has a great story from his Sears days:

“In 1981, I had a lady try and return a pair of unworn white dress shoes that were at least 20 years out of style, the box itself was an antique. She said they didn't fit and she wanted her money back... We gave her money back, the current price for those type of shoes was about $25 and that's what she got. Amazing policy, I wonder if they still stand by that?”

Hard to say, Tim…good old Sears!

In 1996, Sears closed the Fallbrook location and moved to nearby Westfield Shoppingtown Topanga (known to purists by its original name, Topanga Plaza) in the former location of The Broadway department store upon that chain’s acquisition by Federated Department Stores, parent of Macy’s.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The ____ Side of Sears

I’ll let you come up with your own adjective to describe this gasp-worthy (ok, that’s mine) group of four Class A Sears stores, which opened between August and October, 1964 and are pictured here shortly after opening. Showing a wide spectrum of architecture and (almost) every Sears logo combination, the individual charm of each of these stores speaks for itself.

The first store pictured is the now torn down Columbus, Ohio Northland Mall store. Columbus had an Eastland, Westland and Southland Mall as well, which still exist in various states. On my earlier post about the Oakbrook, Illinois store, Steven Swain pointed out the similarity in concept to that store albeit with a more substantial steel structure supporting the awning. The store, shown here in a 2003 photo, was razed along with the rest of the mall in 2004.

The second store is the Hicksville, Long Island, New York store, which held the distinction for a great many years as Sears’ top-grossing store. This store was built adjacent to Mid-Island Plaza (now called Broadway Mall) and is still going strong. Check out the sweet two-tone Rambler wagon in the foreground of the parking lot. Here is a page of not-too-shabby photos of a Cadillac collectors’ show that show the store as it currently appears for a backdrop.

The third store is still humming away in Albuquerque, New Mexico in a shopping center that was originally launched by Homart, the development division of Sears. Original plans called for a 124,000 square foot store, but Austin T. Cushman, Sears' chairman at the time, professed confidence in Albuquerque's future and personally ordered the store's size hiked up to over 170,000 square feet. Provisionally known as “Homart Shopping Center”, it opened as the Coronado Shopping Center, and is now more fittingly referred to as Coronado Mall, reflecting the large enclosed portion that was added some years later.

The last store, from Decatur, Georgia’s Columbia Mall, which was later renamed Avondale Mall. The store closed in 1984 and finally met the wrecking ball last year. Note the presence of a “key-osk” (my apologies.) out front, a not uncommon feature of Sears and other chains (note the fourth photo here) during that time. I mean seriously, why would someone want to go inside a store to have a duplicate key made- the idea itself is just tacky, don’t you think? Those booths were definitely the way to go. Here is a nice photo page from a great site with extensive photos of the store (and its destruction) and history of the mall over the years, and there is also a video (please see disclaimer below) showing the store’s final moments.
The attached video link portrays the destruction of a classic retail property. More sensitive retail fans will want to exercise caution in deciding whether or not to view said video. Ok, you’ve been warned.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sears Had Everything

A few interior shots from 1962, including an attractive snack bar, (great way to take a break during a shopping trip, right?), some departmental views, and the ubiquitous catalog order desk. As mentioned previously, every Sears store had one of these, and the company also had hundreds of standalone Catalog Stores in small towns across the country, filling in the (fairly few) gaps market gaps Sears had during those years.

Oh, and for those who can read music:

Yes, indeed!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Many Sides of Sears, 1963

The seven Sears stores pictured above were all opened in a seven-month period – from March through October, 1963. These stores – all type A “Complete Department Stores” help to illustrate the impressive breadth of architectural styles Sears employed during the period. It’s interesting to note, also, that Sears used multiple logo styles on their stores – the “script” type, which had been in use in various forms since the early 1950’s and the “serif” type, which began to appear on store facades and in catalogs and print advertising around 1960. The company used them interchangeably (which is amazing, when one considers the intense emphasis placed on having a “uniform corporate identity” today). In more than a few cases, they even used both styles on the same store!

As a company, Sears went from strength to strength during this period, enjoying record yearly sales and profit increases, with total sales of over $5 billion in 1963. The following year, Sears would overtake The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company as the world’s largest selling retailer, a position they would hold for nearly three decades afterward. Also, Sears’ shopping center development division, founded in 1960 and named Homart Development Corporation (after the company’s home office location at the corner of Homan Avenue and Arthington Street ) began to gain steam. Homart had opened its first shopping center, Seminary South in Ft. Worth, Texas (now called Fort Worth Town Center) the previous year. The company would open its second shopping center, the Hancock Center Mall in Austin, Texas in 1963. The Austin Sears store is pictured in the second photo above.

The photos, top to bottom, are of the following stores – (1) Downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, near the Minnesota State Capitol and still open, (2) Austin, Texas, at the Hancock Center mall, also still open, (3) Park Forest, Illinois, in the famous early “planned community” which was originally founded in 1948. Through the 1950’s an impressive array of stores opened up in Park Forest’s shopping plaza, including such Chicago standbys as Marshall Field & Company, Goldblatts and Jewel Food Stores, among many others. Sears finally joined the group in ’63. None of those stores exist today, though several of the buildings still stand in one form or another. (4) Montgomery, Alabama, with very cool smaller logos above each entrance, (5) Orlando, Florida, with a two-toned Sears service truck heading out, (6) Denver, Colorado, and (7) Wilmington, Delaware at Prices Corner Shopping Center. This store still exists and has been greatly expanded over the years.