Goodbye Sears: Staving the Inevitable

The slow, painful demise of Sears is a mystery to me. The very first word I knew how to read was “Sears.” I live in a home, built in 1901 by the Sears, Roebuck Corporation as a demonstration of what would be possible for “Middle Class America.” The third floor of the home was especially designed to house a live-in maid. How much the definition of “middle class” has changed over the past 120 years! However, here we are, 117 years after Sears and Roebuck claimed that the middle class consumer could affordably buy “anything” from their catalog, everything from horses to houses!

Sears, throughout my life was a venerable retail institution, and has been for the better part of the last century. Like many retailers, they made mis-steps entering the twenty first century, but by no means should that have been their death knell.

Sears built its empire (which at one time was vast, operating more than 4,000 stores, showrooms, and catalog pickup locations across the country) on catalog sales, an invention of the Montgomery Ward Corporation and of the Larkin Soap Company, both of which were more established, larger, and had a better chain of logistics than the burgeoning Sears and Roebuck. No matter, Sears and Roebuck would eventually absorb the majority of the Larkin Soap Company business when Larkin finally shuttered in the midst of World War II by catering to the price-conscious, quality-minded, middle-class consumer. At the time the middle class was the largest segment of the American economy and those who were too poor to be part of the middle class aspired to be part of the middle class. 

Over the post World War II industrial and economic boom, Sears grew and prospered. The re-invented post-war retail and adapted to the growth of Suburban America by capitalizing on catalog sales and in-store pick-up and home delivery.

The Sears catalog became an institution in American retail. According to the Sears Archives, In addition to recording the changing scene in America, the catalogs represent the work and efforts of thousands of Americans. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who later wrote the Tarzan series, worked for Sears. Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward, Gloria Swanson, Susan Dey, Cheryl Tiegs, and Stephanie Powers all appeared on the pages of Sears catalogs as models.” The Sears catalog is an important document of contemporaneous American History, because “the catalogs accurately reflect the styles and furnishings popular through the years, producers of Broadway shows and Hollywood movies frequently refer to them.”

In a short-sighted and odd move, Sears decided to ax the catalog in 1993, citing “modern trends in retailing.” For the company, this move marked the beginning of the end. Imagine if Sears, rather than terminating the legendary catalog had instead moved it online? Sears would likely be what Amazon is today and I wouldn’t be writing this article.

Instead, today we begin to write the epitaph of Sears. Its days are done, and the pages of financial newspapers are filled with heartbreaking stories of loyal associates who have been members of the Sears family for decades. Undoubtedly, just like their Sears Canada cousins, they will be screwed and robbed by Eddie Lampert and his crooked cronies when they roll up the rug after pillaging Sears for—literally—all it was worth. I wish them all the best and pray that they receive the due they are rightfully owed. 

The tragic demise of the entire Sears empire is more than just a footnote on corporate mismanagement, but a case study in systemic and organized corporate theft. Eddie Lampert—a hedge fund manager from Connecticut—should be indicted for stealing millions in intellectual property and assets from what was once a powerhouse in American retailing and purposefully dismantling a legendary retailer. I don’t need to write much about what a crook Eddie Lampert is, because the press has covered his misdeeds, quirks, and tyrannical style in spades. He is truly a Jesse James of the American retail scene.

However, while the death of Sears marks just one more legendary American department store name to join the ash-heap of retail history along with Montgomery Ward, The Bon Ton, Lazarus, Marshall Field, Abraham and Strauss, Adam Meldrum and Anderson, Sibley’s, Hill’s, The Bon Marche, Gimbel’s, and legions of others… this time its different. Many of these retailers were regional and the few national names to bid an early departure left behind other national retailers to pick up the slack. Now, we have precious few national names (JCPenney and Macy’s, both of which are also struggling) remaining. And this time, it’s different, because we are different.

Sears was responsible for the iconic launch and growth of so many brands—Allstate Insurance, the Discover Card, Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, and so many others that were in demand by a burgeoning, and value-minded middle class. And the demise of sears marks not only the death of a retail giant—but also the death of entire portions of the retail and economic sectors and, perhaps most sadly, the middle class consumer. True, the multi-billion dollar hedge fund manager from Connecticut badgered, outmaneuvered, and cashed in on an institution beloved by the middle class, but he also nailed the final nail in the coffin of the American middle class. And maybe that’s the point: Sears is dead because the middle class is dead too. There is no more Sears because there is no more middle class. Those who identify as poor or lower middle class don’t aspire for a new Kenmore vacuum cleaner, or a set of fine Craftsman screw drivers, they long for a Kardashian-esque life filled with garbage made in sweatshops by Prada, Coach, Michael Kors, and Jimmie Choo. 

Perhaps the “modern trends in retailing” Sears noted in 1993 were not the slow change in retail sales cycles or the upcoming march to online shopping, but truly the fact that their core customer—the American middle class—was dying. And maybe Eddie Lampert knew that the once largest-sector of the American population was brain dead too, enamored instead with ersatz wealth, and that no one would notice as he pillaged an American institution. The last act hasn’t played out yet, and I certainly hope the financial regulators and watchdogs notice this disgrace. If Sears should fall without a sound from the middle class, the future of the American economy is firmly in the hedge fund managers as we march toward an untenable and worrisome future. 

 

Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers

This article about Soviet mapmaking first appeared in Wired. It’s fascinating that the Soviets were making *very* detailed maps of the United States while it was illegal for Soviet citizens to possess or make maps of their own cities.

Read the entire article at Wired.

A 1980 Soviet map of San Diego naval facilities (left) compared with a US Geological Survey map of the same area, from 1978 (revised from 1967). KENT LEE/EAST VIEW GEOSPATIAL; USGS Originally published at Wired.com

Today, I became an e-resident of Estonia! 

Estonian e-residency card

I’m one of a very elite group of Americans (there are about 500 of us) that now holds e-residency for Estonia. Estonia, as some of you know, is my adopted home away from home, largely a product of my partner’s research activities there. Over the last eight years and seven visits to Estonia, I have come to love the country and its amazing history. The very short version is that Estonia has been inhabited for a very long time, by very resilient people who have worked diligently and seriously to maintain Estonian culture, despite odds that seemed constantly to the contrary.

Flag of Estonia

Whenever we mention Estonia to our North American friends, we get a blank look. We’ve had “the conversation” so many times, we literally carry around a little map showing the placement of Estonia and have a whole spiel all sorted out to educate our North American friends. The inevitable conversation goes something like this:

Person: Where? Astoria?

Us: No, Estonia. Astoria is a neighborhood in Queens, New York. When we were kids, it wasn’t on the map, it was part of the Soviet Union.

Person: Oh. (This is where the blank look intensifies.) So… you’re going to Russia?

Us: No, Estonia. It’s a little country on the Baltic Sea.

Person: Oooooh! The Balkans!
Us: No, the Baltic Sea. It’s just under Finland and next to Russia. (This is where we show the little map.)

The little map that we carry around to show folks where Estonia is.

Person: Oh, right. So you’re going to Russia.

Us: Actually, Estonia is a pretty cool place. It’s where Skype comes from!

Person: Oh wow! Yeah! I know Skype.

No joke… we’ve had that exact conversation about 10,000 times.

About 1 in 30 people actually pique their interest after “the conversation” and for the other 29, it’s their loss. Estonia is one of the coolest countries I’ve been to. Throughout the last five centuries, Estonia has been occupied: by the Swedes, the Danes (and in fact, it was in Estonian where the current Danish flag was “discovered”, the Swedes again, the White Russians—and then Estonia became independent—until it was invaded by the Nazis, then the Soviet Russians, and then again in 1990, Estonia became the first republic to cede from the United Soviet Socialist Republics, or The Soviet Union. Since then, Estonia has been free and amazing. Despite years of oppression, Estonians kept the Estonian language, culture, and traditions alive, despite the fact that all were illegal under 50 years of Soviet rule.

Estonians have a national tradition of song and dance, and in fact, won independence the second time through song (not a bad approach, considering that most countries earn independence through bloody wars.) The story is chronicled in the outstanding documentary The Singing Revolution.

As Estonia set up its new independent government, it had an eye on the future. It’s the only country in the world that doesn’t have a paper version of its constitution. It all lives online, and it makes for very interesting reading. Estonia is also the only country in the world to offer e-citizenship that allows e-citizens to start companies, bank, pay taxes, and fill prescriptions (among other actions) online. The idea is to foster creativity and help to secure a strong position for the future of Estonia as a home to entrepreneurs, inventors, and other creative people.

Estonian e-residency welcome kit

As a country used to doing business in a different manner, I am thrilled and honoured to be an e-resident and part of such a great society.