Friday, December 28, 2018

Old Names in the News: Sears, Zakheim, Saporito

Did you get all the presents you wished for during this holiday season? I purposely chose the word “wish” as it conjures up the image of the Sears Wish Book, the once-giant retailer’s annual encyclopedia of gifts for all ages. “In 1968,” according to Sears Archives, “the Wish Book totaled 605 pages, with 225 pages devoted to toys and 380 pages to gifts for adults.”

During this all important shopping season, when merchants often garner most of their sales and profits,  several articles have surfaced about the fall of Sears (and sister company, Kmart) from iconic to catatonic ( and 

Today, Friday, CNBC reported Sears will shutter 80 more Sears and Kmart stores on top of the 182 closings it announced after it filed for bankruptcy protection October 15 ( 

Amazon and other Internet retailers are being blamed for the truncation and potential demise of the once largest retailer in the world. Amazon et al might be hammering the nail into Sears’ coffin, but the truth is Sears was fading into obscurity years before Jeff Bezos conceptualized Amazon in 1994. 

Consider the January 1980 edition of Chain Store Age. The cover story: “Why America Is Not Shopping Sears.” In 15 pages backed by extensive consumer research, articles detailed the troubles Sears faced, some of its own making, some because of newer, more focused competition, some the result of new market conditions including the proliferation of large shopping centers and the elimination of retail price maintenance laws that allowed brand name goods to be sold at discount prices. Shoppers no longer had to wait for sales of major appliances, consumer electronics, sporting goods, tools and other desired merchandise. They were available every day at the discount store located closer to their homes. 

Though still the largest retailer in the world back in 1980, Sears could not maintain that position as more nimble, more focused retailers took bites out of its market share. Best Buy. Circuit City. Home Depot. Lowe’s. Toys “R” Us. Sports Authority. Target. Wal-Mart. Even Kmart snatched sales from Sears. 

Sears reacted by turning commissioned sales people into hourly workers. Bad decision. They lacked incentive to sell. 

Apparel never was a Sears strong point. Baby boomers wouldn’t be caught dead wearing Sears clothing, not when the mall had dozens, even a hundred, specialty stores offered fashion right styles. 

Besides, walking into most Sears stores was like entering a mausoleum. Whereas department store mannequins were freshly dressed and lifelike, Sears mannequins appeared lifeless. Store decor and lighting were old fashioned and stark. There was no drama inside. It was as if Sears executives had never heard of the concept of retailtainment. 

When Sears filed for bankruptcy protection I posed the following: “Will Sears and Kmart be salvaged or scuttled? Ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you shopped Sears or Kmart? If one or both stores disappeared, would you notice? Would you miss them?”

Nothing has transpired to make me change my opinion.

Designer Prices: I have always eschewed clothing that outwardly displays a designer’s name or brand logo. I am okay with wearing Adolpho blazers or Givenchy suits with the labels discreetly sewn onto inside breast pockets (though since my retirement I rarely wear suits). 

Outward chauvinism is not my style. In fact, I have long advocated a reversal of the standard bill of fare. Rather than charging more for a polo shirt or pair of jeans that shout out the designer’s or brand’s name, I believe such walking billboards should be sold at a discount as payment for the publicity they provide.   
Two of my cousins are optometrists. As their practices are in Philadelphia and Jacksonville it was not convenient for me to patronize them when I needed new eyeglasses. 

But I did pick their brains about the differences between designer and generic frames you might find in a mass market optical store such as Lenscrafters or Visionworks. 

Their responses: If you are concerned about the quality of a generic frame, don’t be. If you find a generic frame you like, buy it. Designer frames may provide a design that intrigues you, but the cost will be much higher. 

Their bottom line—find a lower priced generic frame. 

Which brings us to the recent scam Payless ShoeSource performed on fashionistas in Los Angeles. Payless tricked them into believing its $19.99 man-made women’s shoes were leather, designed by Bruno Palessi and worth hundreds of dollars. Here’s a Washington Post article to click on in case you missed the charade:

Degrees of Separation: Many of my blog postings are generated by current events that bring up incidents or people/companies from my past (the Sears piece above is an example). 

So I was doubly stimulated when reading The New York Times on line in the middle of the night earlier this week.

The first article, a profile of acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan, referenced “Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration” (

Dov and I were elementary school classmates at Yeshiva Rambam in Brooklyn some 60 years ago. He, and I, were considered Talmudic scholars by our teachers. Apart from his service in the Pentagon, Dov went on to become a rabbi. 

The second article was an Op-Ed piece entitled “Trump’s King Minus Touch,” by Bill Saporito, a contributor to The Times editorial board ( Bill and I worked together on Chain Store Age Supermarkets 40 years ago. He left to become a photographer for a Pittsburgh paper, if memory serves me right, and afterward began a long association with various Time Inc. magazines including Fortune and Time. 

Seeing their names in print is a nice way to keep up with old acquaintances.