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Sears, The Changing American Marketplace And Retail Disruption

Signs for a Sears department store is displayed in Norristown, Pa., Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, buckling under its massive debt load and staggering losses. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Signs for a Sears department store is displayed in Norristown, Pa., Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, buckling under its massive debt load and staggering losses. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Sears once changed the American marketplace. Now, it’s filed for bankruptcy. We’ll look at the retail industry’s latest disruption.


Sarah Halzack, Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. (@sarahhalzack)

Vicki Howard, business and cultural historian. Professor at the University of Essex in England. Author of “From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store.” (@retailhistorian)

Louis Hyman, professor at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. Author of “Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary.” (@louishyman)

From The Reading List

Bloomberg: “Sears’s Last Gasp Could Breathe Life Into Rivals” — “There was only one plausible outcome in the long, tortured saga of Sears Holdings Corp., and it has finally arrived.

“The retailing giant, which includes its eponymous department store and the Kmart discount chain, said Monday it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is set to close 142 unprofitable stores near the end of the year and Eddie Lampert, the financier who is its largest shareholder, is stepping down from his role as CEO.

“The company — formed by Lampert in a 2005 merger of two storied but struggling shopping empires — had been withering practically since its inception. Lampert’s corporate creation has never posted annual comparable sales growth. The last time it delivered a yearly profit, Borders bookstore was still in business.”

From Louis Hyman: Sears And Jim Crow


Smithsonian: “The Rise and Fall of Sears” — “The lifetime of Sears has spanned and embodied the rise of modern American consumer culture. The 130-year-old mass merchandiser that was once the largest retailer in the United States is part of the fabric of American society.

“From its start as a 19th-century mail-order firm, to its heyday on Main Street and in suburban malls, and from its late 20th-century reorientation toward credit and financial products to its attempted return to its original retail identity, Sears has mirrored the ups and downs of the American economy. It was a distribution arm of industrial America. It drove the suburbanizing wedge of postwar shopping malls. It helped atomize the industrial economy through manufacturer outsourcing in the 1970s and 1980s. It played a key role in the diffusion of mass consumer culture and commercial values. For better and for worse, Sears is a symbol of American capitalism.”

The Atlantic: “Sears Is Not a Failure” — “To appreciate the rise and fall of Sears, the retail giant that filed for bankruptcy on Monday, consider a 19th-century pocket watch.

“To most modern shoppers, a pocket watch is boring. It’s an unfashionable, potentially broken piece of gerontic jewelry. But to others, it’s not merely an artifact. It’s an achievement: a silent symphony of mite-size screws, whirling in uncanny harmony.

“So it is with Sears. Today’s consumers look upon the retailer with disdain, if they look upon it at all. In the past five years, the company has lost almost $6 billion and closed more than 1,000 stores. Not all bankruptcies are fatal, but the reporting around Sears’s filing seems rather funereal. Sunk deep into debt by its hedge-fund owners, Sears is almost certainly a goner.”

Washington Post: “Sears’s ‘radical’ past: How mail-order catalogues subverted the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow” — “Monday’s announcement that Sears would file for bankruptcy and close 142 stores came as little surprise to anyone who has followed the retail giant’s collapse in recent years. Still, the news inspired a wave of nostalgia for a company that sold an ideal of middle-class life to generations of Americans.

“A lesser-known aspect of Sears’s 125-year history, however, is how the company revolutionized rural black Southerners’ shopping patterns in the late 19th century, subverting racial hierarchies by allowing them to make purchases by mail or over the phone and avoid the blatant racism that they faced at small country stores.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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