An Elegy For The “World’s Largest Store”: Sears

by Larry Teren

There was a time when Chicago was considered the capitol of the retail industry. Headquartered here was Sears Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward as well as one of the largest catalog houses, Spiegel, which started out as an emporium in 1865. (It seemed as if every television game show always gave out prizes such as furniture and appliances from the Spiegel Catalog.) 

By the 1920s, Sears owner Julius Rosenwald made so much money, he gave what it took to build the Museum of Science and Industry. Today, both the Spiegel and Sears names are still doing business but a far cry from their glory days. Neither learned to adapt to the Internet Age.

Along with Spiegel, Sears and Montgomery Ward also distributed very popular catalogs. Apparently the people who ran these very large and successful organizations understood how to get others to send a check through the mail or speak to someone over the phone and give them a credit card. But they were at a loss on how to entice customers to visit a website and buy the same goods.

Until the mid 1990’s, the Sears at the six corner intersection of Cicero, Irving Park Road and Milwaukee Avenue on Chicago’s far northwest side was considered the flagship location and the most desirable to work at. Today, it is an afterthought for shoppers who cannot afford to spend precious gas money going out to suburban shopping malls.

You wanted a major appliance such as a Kenmore Dryer, or Craftsman tool, or even carpeting, you went to Sears unless you were looking for something cheap and not concerned about the lesser quality. Our upstairs neighbor in the two-flat we lived in during the 1960’s was a Sears carpet salesman. Our family looked upon him with awe because he made a very good living without having to go out and hustle leads. There was always a large, steady list of prospects calling Sears or visiting one of their stores wanting to purchase carpeting. Conversely, Dad, the prototype life insurance salesman, worked exclusively off of leads generated from referrals or making cold calls.

The iconic store location, however, was no doubt the one anchoring the north end of the Golf-Mill Shopping Center in north suburban Niles, at the intersection of Golf Road and Milwaukee Avenue. Just outside the store was a sight to behold. As Grannie on the Beverly Hillbillies used to say, a cement pond with a Water Mill stared you in the face. You could walk all around the pond area during the warm weather over wooden mini bridges, look at the fauna swimming about and see coins tossed onto the pool bottom for good luck. The Water Mill was constantly moving. It was fun for kids to run around in that area while one parent supervised them and the other went into the Sears store to shop. Today, Sears is no longer there and the Water Mill and pool are long gone. and shopping mall management firms have a hard time finding popular, large size well-known chain stores to act as anchors.

Sears started its downhill slide in the 1970’s when K-Mart began to push its way up the ladder with the popularity of their publicity-friendly “blue light specials”. K-Mart itself was the mastermind of forward thinking owners of the S. S. Kresge Company to go modern with an upscale-sounding name.

Eventually, K-Mart was knocked off its own king-of-the-hill perch by Target and Walmart. I guess each generation can stand one of two retail juggernauts while the rest fight for the scraps. Ironically, K-Mart and Sears decided to join forces as a way to stay in business.

Instead of growing, Sears and K-Mart are re-trenching. Their partnership is shutting down more than 100 store sites just after receiving tax write-offs from the State of Illinois a couple of weeks earlier as an inducement ( or bribe depending on how you look at it) not to move their headquarters to another state.

Spiegel struggles to stay in business having been sold several times in the past ten to fifteen years to venture capital groups. Montgomery Ward is just a warm, fuzzy memory to those who did a lot of catalog shopping.  It’s possible that in another 10 years or less, hearing the names of K-Mart and Sears will cause a generation of shoppers to shrug just as they do now when you mention long-gone retail chain stores such as E. J. Korvettes, Goldblatts and Wieboldts. Oh, yeah- I forgot Marshall Field. But, that’s another sorry story.

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