The Mall Issue
If you imagine the floor plan of Alderwood Mall as a crucifix, J.C. Penney is at Christ's head and Sears is at his feet. That's the way it has always been at countless malls around the country. Sears and Penney: the original anchor stores. It's almost too obvious to note that the internet has not been kind to either business. Having been laid low by big-box retailers like Walmart and Home Depot in the '90s, they were then repeatedly kicked in the teeth by Amazon. This is obviously old news, and whatever pity you may have felt for these retail dinosaurs has likely been drained by repetition. But bear with me.
A local angle: The Sodo branch of Sears in the Starbucks Center (which itself used to be known as the Sears building) closed down this summer. Sears opened at that spot in 1925. Until its closure, it had reportedly been the longest-running Sears location in America and was at one time the fulfillment center for the chain's entire West Coast catalog business. At the beginning of this month, the J.C. Penney store that's been holding down one corner of Bellevue Square for more than half a century also closed. Speculators are wondering if one or both of these chains will declare bankruptcy after Christmas. Whether they survive another year or not, a quick glance at their respective stock values indicates a grim future: When graphed on a five-year axis, the trajectory is as horrible and obvious as a 747 with no power to its engines.
Both companies have suffered from bad leadership. Sears had the marrow sucked out of it by a hedge-fund manager named Eddie Lampert, who tried to apply Ayn Rand's objectivist ideals to the operation of a retail chain, with disastrous consequences. J.C. Penney temporarily turned the reins of the company over to Ron Johnson, a former Apple executive who tried to remake every Penney into a hip destination; about halfway through Johnson's transformation, the company got cold feet, fired him, and put out a cowardly ad urging customers to "come back to J.C. Penney." The commercial acknowledged that they'd tried to change, promised to stop that foolishness, and closed with outright begging: "We heard you. Now, we'd love to see you."
A visit to the Alderwood Penney and Sears stores reveals no obvious sign of financial troubles. At this time last week, both were fully stocked for the potential Christmas rush, their tables piled high with stacks of creased pants, wobbly towers of poly-blend sweaters, floors bedecked by riding lawnmowers, exercise equipment, ceramic cookware. I may only have imagined the smell of desperation in the air. The aisles of both stores were largely empty, except for an occasional group of employees huddled together, whispering serious things and looking around with darting eyes. The few paying customers were treated to a feverish point-of-purchase pitch to join the Sears rewards program or sign up for a pre-approved J.C. Penney credit card. The energy of the transactions was naked, ugly, defeatist.
I remember when it was a much easier gig.
My first real job was at a Sears that anchored the Maine Mall. This was in the mid-1990s. I made minimum wage—$4.25 an hour—as a part-time member of the "Replenishment Team," which is to say I was a stock boy in the men's apparel section. I sometimes picked up overtime working evenings on the loading dock, helping customers load their new air conditioners and shop vacs into the backs of their pickup trucks. When I started, it seemed like everyone had worked there forever: the Deadhead who was born with no sphincter in his asshole and so had no control over his bowel movements, the alcoholic menswear salesman who fell off the wagon every Thanksgiving and went to rehab until New Year's Day, everyone. We'd occasionally bring on temp workers to help us restock socks and Henley shirts during holiday seasons. One guy who'd recently been fired by Walmart tried to recruit me into his white-supremacist organization. Another introduced me to clove cigarettes and asked me to join his vampire role-playing game. (I refused both offers, though I occasionally smoked cloves for years afterward.) The store manager's name was Dick. His assistant went by the nickname "Butch." In my job interview, when I mentioned I loved books, Butch told me with a puff of pride that he owned every single Louis L'Amour novel in leather hardcover. I was fresh out of high school and to me, everyone seemed like a caricature. I imagined writing a comic book about Sears, or a cartoonish musical.
As first jobs go, it was remarkably cushy; Sears employees were the kind of lazy time-wasters that Republicans imagine government workers or unionized employees to be. I worked there for a year and a half without ever really learning how to fold a pair of jeans. Sometimes I'd go take naps in my car while on the clock. I worked with a gaggle of middle-aged women, and we'd gossip about the store drunks and cover one another's smoke breaks and coffee breaks and lunch breaks and snack breaks and shopping breaks and just-need-a-break breaks. Sometimes on one of these endless breaks, I'd wander over to the J.C. Penney on the other end of the mall. Everything seemed much fancier there, neater, more expensive, the employees a lot more normal (if a little bit snootier). I wanted to start a prank war with them, but I got distracted by another project: We built a secret fort in the winter-jacket stockroom where we could hide when our managers were looking for us. None of us felt like we were getting away with anything by squandering the company's time, because we worked for Sears. Sears had always been around, and would always be around. Of course it would. It was Sears.
The doom in the air at Penney and Sears is obviously a bigger problem than poor leadership or lack of vision. Literally and culturally, their clientele is dying off with no new customers to take their place. When I worked in the men's section at Sears, our biggest customers by far were those long-suffering women who bought all their husbands' clothes for them. Happily, that's a fading demographic. But demographics are the least of it. So what if Sears has appliances and an auto center and an optician? Who cares if you can buy furniture and pose for a family portrait at J.C. Penney? You simply can't compete with the store that has everything.
The feeling of entitlement that prevailed when I worked at Sears is obviously long gone. Employees don't get to take their jobs for granted anymore. They hustle now, like characters in an old TV commercial. The salespeople I encountered in both stores were so friendly and welcoming, they nearly made my eyes well up with gratitude. I didn't know them, and they didn't know me, and yet they made me feel so wanted. It's a pity nobody wants them in return.