I ran across a thread in the Discussion Forums at CarTalk.com today that struck a chord with me, posted by CapriRacer: “[A]t one time Sears was THEE [sic] place to buy tools, tires, batteries, and get your car worked on. What happened? Was it their transition from a catalog retailer to a brick and mortar store? Was it a change in management? Was the competition with discount stores too tough?”
Not to get overly personal, but I have a special stake in this discussion.
My dad died in 1996, when I was just 28. For 25 of the years I was on the planet, my father worked for Sears, Roebuck and Company. For 35 years in total, he was a display manager at the stores in Natick, Lowell and Burlington, Massachusetts, and in Nashua, New Hampshire.
My father was the smartest, most cultured man I ever met. He read voraciously, he listened to classical music, and he was a student of fine art. He never got a piece of paper from a high school, though, signifying that he completed the required courses for a diploma. After his time in the Navy at the end of WWII, he used the GI Bill to go to art school. Not “college”: A school where they’d teach anybody how to draw and paint and sculpt things.
He took that practical knowledge and applied it the only place that hired art people: big retail stores that needed arty-types to build window displays. He started off at Filene’s in Boston and ended up at Sears.
My folks were cheap Yankees from the get-go, compounded by the fact that they both grew up during the Depression. Everything we owned, from the paint on the walls to the Toughskins on my legs came from Sears because (a) it lasted forever and (b) it came with a 10-percent employee discount, and sometimes more if you could live with scratches and dents. Every appliance my mom owned looked like it had been plowed into by an Oldsmobile.
Sears did all the service on my parents’ cars, and my first couple of cars. Not just tires and batteries in those days, but major services that you’d typically look for a dealership to provide. They’d do anything short of a transmission rebuild at least until the late 1980s, when I was working in the Sears Auto Center in Natick at the Budget Rent-a-Truck counter.
Soon after, though, the wheels fell off of auto service at Sears. In June of 1992, California’s Department of Consumer Affairs charged that Sears defrauded consumers, and it moved to have the company’s license to repair cars revoked. The California Bureau of Auto Repair found during an 18-month undercover investigation of 27 Sears auto-repair shops, that “unnecessary service and repairs were recommended 34 times. In some cases, undercover investigators posing as customers were charged as much as $550 for needless repairs,” according to an article in the New York Times.
It initiated a nationwide scandal at the time, and other states jumped on the bandwagon. New Jersey, in particular, found that the shops were providing selling unnecessary repairs. Officials launched investigations in New York and Illinois, but found no particular irregularities. It marked the end of the line for Sears as an employer of mechanics. From then on out, it shifted auto centers to just provide tires and batteries, and even those services are pretty thin on the ground today.
When my dad died in 1996, I had a 1983 Buick LeSabre that I drove to his house and filled to the headliner with Craftsman tools. I still have most of them, but I’ve seen the quality of the tools degrade to the point of irrelevance over the years. No matter what the warranty is, the chrome vanadium Craftsman Phillips screwdriver I have from the mid-1970s is infinitely better quality than the potmetal garbage I can replace it with today.
(BTW, I’ve been actively looking for quality tools to replace them with, and the tools from Sonic seem to be about the best at reasonable cost.)
In a lot of cases, there’s simply no equivalent, because the tool department is about half the size it used to be. I simply can’t replace a Craftsman tape measure, for example, because new ones don’t exist.
Sears has limited the warranty on a lot of items. For example, there aren't Craftsman rakes, hose nozzles or shovels with a lifetime warranty any longer. And, as the Consumerist found, regardless of what the warranty policy is, a lot of times the difference between swapping your broken ratchet out for another one depends on the store and the sales associate. Some stores have concocted their own limits on how many warranty items a single customer can take advantage of in a day, for example. Come in with four busted screwdrivers and you might find that the store will only replace three of them at a time.
But the answer to what has happened to Sears as a tool and auto service retailer is rooted in what happened to retailing in America, as well as what happened to manufacturing, and pretty much every other industry: We stopped considering human capital as something in which to invest, and everything has suffered as a consequence.
At the time my dad joined the company, a job at Sears offered job security unlike anything this side of the Federal government. It offered significant benefits beyond just a salary, including health insurance, a retirement plan, and profit sharing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had a retirement savings program that matched every dollar he saved with two. Twenty-three years after he finally retired, and almost twenty years after he died, my 86-year-old mother still lives comfortably in a house she owns outright because of that retirement savings program.
As a result, it wasn’t just executives who spent careers there. The guy who sold Lady Kenmore appliances, the guy who sized you up for Winner II sneakers, and the lady who worked behind the cage at the catalog pickup counter were career people, with homes and families and two cars in the driveway just like the Store Manager.
Today, Sears is in competition with companies whose entire modus operandi is to make sure that the vast majority of its employees don’t work full-time, so they can dodge the bullet of paying for health insurance. Sears has gone from engaging in a partnership with its employees – many of whom dedicated their entire lives to the company – to operating a gristmill of interchangeable, part-time personnel.
Employees always grumble, but today, employees at Sears give the company a grim 2.6-star rating on Glassdoor, .5 stars lower than Walmart, and .7 stars lower than Target.
If you want to know what happened to its tools, just take a close look at how it treats its people.
P.S.: Sears never "made" Craftsman tools. In its history, it contracted out to some of the finest toolmakers in the world. You can find out which company made those tools by decoding the first three digits of the serial number to the left of the decimal point on pretty much anything Sears sold. There's a decoder at VintageMachinery.org