The concept of what it means to be an American has changed a lot since its inception nearly two and a half centuries ago. One of the most drastic changes, brought upon by the industrial age and a capitalist mentality, is the concept of consumerism, which has entrenched itself into the lives of nearly all Americans. The largest single facilitating entity behind this rise of consumerism throughout the 20th century was catalog company-turned-retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company, better known today as Sears. Although now a shadow of its former self, Sears was the largest retailer in America until 1990 when it was passed by Walmart. Even though Sears is still a well-known brand, it’s better known for its prolonged struggle through bankruptcy court and its controversial “former” CEO, Eddie Lampert, who is still very much in control of the brand.
Although it seems logical to blame the downfall of Sears on its failed 2005 merger with Kmart, along with incompetent management and the financial crash of 2008, the truth is much more complex than that. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Sears was actually well-positioned to become the dominant retail force in the 21st century before backward-thinking management sold their advantages away. This slow-motion-trainwreck of a story is more than just Sears and Eddie Lampert. It’s Amazon, Walmart, the internet, the Great Recession, and a three-decade head start that Sears had over the rest of American retail. Sears may have lost the title of America’s consumerism champion, but it can’t stop us from looking at the current landscape and wondering what could have been.