Sears is closing their last store located within the city of Chicago.
It is the one on the northwest side at the Six Corners area. That’s where Irving Park Road, Cicero and Milwaukee avenues intersect, creating a hub of retail and commercial activity that has anchored the northwest side neighborhood, known as Portage Park. The history of the name dates back to the French explorers. The explorers and their Native American guides would portage canoes across the area, linking the Chicago River on the east and the Des Plaines River to the west.
It is also where I grew up.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. It has always been a city where immigrants from countries around the world would settle. The neighborhoods would reflect their ethnicity and culture. From the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 until well into the 20th century, immigrants were mostly European and included German, Irish, Italian, Polish and Chinese to name a few. More recently, the city has become home to a large Hispanic population as well as those with Korean, Indian and Pakistani heritage.
If you can’t find a good, original ethnic restaurant or shopping experience in Chicago, you really aren’t trying.
Portage Park was a mixture of working class Irish, Germans and Poles. In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, we lived among first, second and third generations of each. When going to Six Corners to shop at stores like Sears, you heard those languages, “broken” English with heavy accents and a lot of “Chicago-speak” that included plenty of “dis, dats and doses”.
Sears was the place to be though. Sears opened their doors at Six Corners in 1938. The three story monolithic structure was the jewel of the intersection with a second story window that you could park a school bus in. The light from the display window glowed like a beacon over the entire intersection.
For many years at Christmas, the windows would feature a larger than life manger scene in all white marble, complete with the three kings and livestock. When it was retired, Sears donated the manger scene to our church where it took over the altar every Advent season.
Sears was where my mom bought my Catholic school approved blue pants and Toughskin jeans with the double knees. It was where we stopped at the HIllman’s grocery store in the basement level to get a free sample of their amazing chocolate chip cookies. It was where my dad got tires for the station wagon, and we earned popcorn from the candy counter, if we were good.
Over the past 20 years, Sears has seen a decline in sales, stores and customers. The reasons have been widely discussed and documented. “They lost their focus on selling to the middle class” or “The middle class shrank along with their market share”, “Upper management did not change with the times and were caught asleep at the wheel”.
Finally though, under the current CEO, Eddie Lampert, Sears has seen a consistent downward spiral in sales and profitability, forcing them to close stores and sell off valuable real estate simply to hold up its stock value. Not a good business strategy for the long term.
So where did Sears really start to go wrong? I know, because Jon Benz told me.
When we moved into our house, over 20 years ago, we quickly met our neighbor Jon, a former Sears executive. Jon was employed as a psychologist in the human resources department. It was his job to evaluate potential management and help them succeed in the company. Jon was retired for almost 15 years at that point, and his wife had passed away not too long after we arrived. While he had trouble walking, his mind was sharp.
Jon was always in the mood for great conversation. He loved our kids and even tolerated our cat, Sam, as she would curl up in the sun on his patio. On summer evenings, when windows were open, we could hear the rhythmic tapping of his typewriter or Jon softly playing Gershwin on the piano.
One night, I asked his opinion about Sears’ direction. At the time, Arthur Martinez was the newly appointed CEO.
“Don’t like him. Don’t like him one bit,” Jon said. Jon went on to tell me why he was concerned about the long-term prospects for Sears.
“They stopped developing their young management to become smart and intuitive retailers.” He explained how the company had stopped investing in young managers with training and professional development, so they would stay with Sears for their entire careers, in turn keeping Sears a success story.
“They started to bring in upper management from competitors, and consultants who went for what was bright and shiny. They forgot about the customer, what they really needed and most importantly, failed to foster a positive culture with their employees. When things didn’t work out, the employees left Sears and went on to the next opportunity. No continuity. No foresight.”
Jon was right. This was a time when Walmart was growing, and stores like Kohl’s and Target were snatching up Sears customers by the thousands. The middle class didn’t go away, Sears just failed to keep them. According to Jon, if Sears had created an environment for young managers to evolve into intelligent middle and upper level managers, this wouldn’t have happened.
Jon passed before he could see the paths taken by Alan Lacy and hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert. I have little doubt Jon was right that Sears could’ve enjoyed massive growth similar to Walmart and Home Depot, if different strategies were implemented. And dare I say, Sears could’ve predicted and been part of what Amazon has done to disrupt traditional retail. Was Sears asleep at the wheel and not training enough from within to make it happen?
So what does this mean for you, your organization’s trade show and event strategy and program?
Like retail, trade shows are not going away, they’re just evolving. Are you doing everything you can to prepare yourself, professionally, for those changes? Are you keeping up with trends, best practices and working with like-minded vendor partners that support your growth strategies?
Six Corners will survive. The space will be redeveloped and still be a vital part of the Portage Park neighborhood. So will trade shows and trade show professionals, as long as we continue to learn and grow.
Thanks for the reminder Jon.