A lesson from the Sears bankruptcy

The retailer largely defined an identity for Americans as consumers while not investing enough in local communities that thrive on the social bonding of local commerce.

Sears signage at its department store in Brooklyn, New York.

Once called the colossus of retailing, Sears filed for bankruptcy on Monday. For the past 25 years, the store that served generations of American shoppers has been unable to compete against big-box chains like Walmart and e-commerce giants like Amazon.

While the Sears name may yet reemerge in smaller form, its demise offers a cautionary tale – and not just on the need for constant innovation in business.

While Sears was long a trusted brand name, it never was a vital center in the local communities that it served. Rather, this icon of mass commerce that started in the 1880s will be best known for largely shaping a broad new identity for Americans, one as frequent consumers.

By 1894, the Sears catalog was 500 pages, reaching millions of Americans. It was a portal into a new universe of material goods, from new styles of clothes to pre-built houses. It was the prime expression of a new type of “consumption community,” according to the late historian Daniel Boorstin.

While the Bible was kept in the parlor, the Sears catalog was kept in the kitchen or living room. Boorstin tells the story of a boy who was asked at Sunday school where the Ten Commandments came from and replied that they came from Sears, Roebuck.

Later, the Sears stores that invaded American suburbs became an early target among activists who said such chains were eroding the social cohesion of local communities. Sears put many local retailers out of business, thus reducing the everyday interactions of trust and common values that define a community and create a degree of economic self-reliance.

A local community needs the kind of commerce that builds relationships as much as generates profits. This desire for mutuality between customers and business owners, says philosopher Andreas Weber, is a type of economic culture that is “a practice of love.”

Many cities and towns today are trying to support local businesses (and farmers) to ensure a rich civic life of connections based on kindness and social bonding. This “local economy” movement is up against the ever-evolving giants of commerce that have come after Sears. Many new outdoor malls, for example, are designed to look like walkable town centers. Yet most of the businesses are national chains.

At its height, the Sears name defined convenience and low prices. Its bankruptcy filing, however, should also now help define a different approach among national and global retailers, one that sustains local communities rather than using them.

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