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10/21/2018 4:23:00 PM
COMMENTARY: Sad end for local Sears stores

Mark Bennett, Tribune-Star

A time traveler, returning from a trip to the early 21st century, would’ve spoiled a party on Terre Haute’s south side on Oct. 16, 1968.

On that Wednesday morning, eight dignitaries — all men, except for Miss Indiana Katherine Fields — stood with beaming smiles at a ceremony outside the entrance to the new Sears store at Terre Haute’s new mall, Honey Creek Square. Congressman John Myers, Mayor Lee Larrison and company honchos extolled the virtues of the store as “hundreds of families” watched, according to the Terre Haute Tribune archives.

Its aisles covered 127,000 square feet. More than 100,000 items filled its shelves, displays and racks. Yet, the store offered more than just stuff. Shoppers could get gifts wrapped; order flowers and customized drapes; plan a kitchen, bath or home remodel job; get car repairs; attend charm, knitting or sewing schools; arrange a furnace or floor tile installation; talk to an interior decorator; get their home water tested; and even have an engine rebuilt, for cryin’ out loud. 

And, as another headline in the Tribune explained, “Sears will service what they sell.”

Fifty years later, to the day, the lead headline on the Tribune-Star’s front page read, “End of an era: Terre Haute Sears one of 142 stores across the U.S. to close.”

Indeed, the news came last Monday that many Terre Hauteans sensed was inevitable. The local Sears — the mall’s first tenant and original anchor store — would close by the end of this year. Nationally, Sears Holding Corp. announced Monday it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief, triggering the wave of closings. Two of Honey Creek Mall’s other 21st-century anchor stores, Macy’s and Carson’s, also closed earlier this year. The remaining anchor, JCPenney, is part of a corporation that reported a 7.5 percent decrease in profits in August, compared to the same month in 2017.

The prime culprit is no mystery. People, young and old, scan the vast aisles of the internet now for all kinds of goods, without moving a muscle, other than those in their fingers while touching a smartphone screen or a computer keyboard. It’s called “e-commerce,” and it’s transformed Amazon into a trillion-dollar, global giant. Amazon’s dominance hastened Sears’ steady demise, both nationally and locally.

As Indiana State University economics professor Bob Guell told the Tribune-Star on Monday, “Amazon and other e-retailers are blowing up Terre Haute as a retail center.”

Sears, a company that once employed 350,000 people in North America is down to 68,000. Founded in 1886, it became America’s largest retailer for most of the 20th century, until Walmart overwhelmed it and others. Today, Sears is the country’s 23rd largest retailer, and the local Sears’ situation reflects that decrease. All those specialized services in that 1968 newspaper ad and trusted Sears brands like DieHard batteries, Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances — the niches that made Sears popular — were gone. New hedge-fund driven ownership sold off those brands.

Imagine trying to explain to those dignitaries at that grand opening gala in Terre Haute a half-century ago that their shining new store — fully stocked and manned by trained, full-time employees — would close in 2018 because corporate ownership with no retail experience will someday amputate the store’s specialties, and customers will turn to handheld computers for their shopping.

Like billions of inhabitants of this planet, I’ve shopped online myself. So, I bear some responsibility for Terre Haute’s Sears going away. But only a portion of that responsibility. Old-fashioned as it sounds, the original Sears’ style — where a repair guy from your hometown store fixes your Kenmore washer, or your broken Craftsman wrench gets replaced on site, no questions asked — might have been the plus that would retain customers otherwise tempted to become exclusively online shoppers.

Sears had a good thing going at one time. I witnessed for most of my 20th-century life. My mom worked at the Terre Haute Sears from the late 1960s until the late ‘70s, then at another near Cincinnati after she and my dad moved. After they moved back to Terre Haute following Dad’s retirement, he got his dream part-time job working in the Sears tool department. My wife’s mom, brother-in-law and aunt also were Sears employees at various times, too. 

I wore Sears clothes to school, used a Sears catcher’s mitt (spotted in one of those legendary Sears and Roebuck catalogs) in Little League and Babe Ruth, and bought Christmas gifts for the first time at their family discount days. I still remember the polite wording my parents taught me to use if I needed to call Mom at work: “Women’s fashions, please,” I’d tell the Sears operator (real people answered then), before they’d relay me to her.

Change comes, regardless.

Ironically, the first manager of the local Sears described in 1968 how the new mall store would change retail shopping.

“In the ‘good old days,’ the prevailing practice was to tuck items in glass-enclosed counters, safely out of reach,” manager Dean Rotramel told the Tribune all those years ago. “In our Sears store, by contrast, almost all the merchandise is attractively displayed in the open, so that customers can see, touch, inspect, select and, in some cases, operate the items they wish to buy.”

That opportunity still feels relevant, at least to me.

Retail experts speculate on what type of businesses will anchor malls such as Terre Haute’s, and what role brick-and-mortar stores will play in the market. No matter the outcome, though, the tradition Sears once followed may never be repeated and will be missed.

#YYYY# Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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