Rundles wrap up: Time travel In the 21st century

Moving on

My wife and I often remarked that stepping into the Sears store in Cherry Creek North was like walking into a time machine. The place hadn’t changed at all in the 40-something years we have been in Denver. Inside it still looks just like the Sears, Roebuck & Co. stores that each of our respective mothers took us to in the 1950s and 1960s back in Chicago (for her) and Flint, Mich. (for me). 

We have the same reaction to a J.C. Penney store in Petoskey, Mich., where we visit nearly every summer. The scene is so dated you expect to find P.F. Flyers, saddle shoes and madras shirts on the racks. I half expect when I enter that my 1964 mother will be at the check-out once again telling me that I have to buy those jeans one size larger so I can grow into them. I think I was 20 before I bought anything that fit.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the Sears store in Cherry Creek and the old Penney’s Up North in Michigan. To be honest, I probably haven’t been in either store over the past 20 years without thinking that it was the last time I would ever have the chance to shop there.

And now, inevitably, comes the news that the Cherry Creek Sears will close this spring after a 61-year run, to be replaced, they say, by condos and/or upscale apartments and some retail space. Something tells me that the people who will live and eventually shop in the replacement building never darkened the door at Sears – at least not for a long time.

That’s progress, I guess, and I am not against it. Indeed, I embrace it, but it still amazes me. In doing some research I discovered that Sears was the nation’s No. 1 retailer until the late 1980s when Walmart took the throne. Obviously, if you walk into just about any Sears, especially Cherry Creek, the people who operate the store took a very cavalier attitude to where modern retail was heading for the last 30 years or so and they sorta deserve the fate of closure. It’s kind of like the automobile business: I often say that General Motors, Ford and Chrysler would never have gone into or risked bankruptcy if they had simply made the Toyota Corolla back in the 1970s. If Sears had evolved in the ‘80s into a WalSears, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The only difference is the government most certainly will not be available for a bailout do-over.

We are seeing the same thing right now in the low-end restaurant business. Fast food joints like McDonald’s, Burger King et al are showing sales declines for the first time since they hit the 300 billion-burgers-sold milestone, with fast-casual restaurants like Shake Shack, Chipotle and Smash Burger filling the breach and stealing market share. It’s also happening in the beer business. Such giants as Miller-Coors and Budweiser, which pretty much had a monopoly on the beer business since Prohibition ended in the early 1930s, are losing ground to upstarts in the craft and brewpub businesses. At least in restaurants and beer, unlike retail and autos, the entrenched giants have recognized the threat early and are taking steps not to end up as dinosaurs.

Maybe, ultimately, that’s the lesson we can draw. When we get too big for our britches, as my father used to say, or we rest too much on our laurels, we run the risk of becoming outmoded – or out-hustled by someone who is leaner and meaner and seemingly so insignificant that we pay little attention. The Denver Broncos over the last couple of years come to mind; perhaps it’s an ironic coincidence that Coach John Fox is now in Chicago, the home of Sears.

Still, I must admit I will miss the old Sears Cherry Creek store. I also drink a Coors Banquet now and then. But for the most part, like most people apparently, I have moved on – moved on to the Internet, to the brewpub, to the better burger, to Gary Kubiak.

The modern time machine only travels forward.

Categories: Economy/Politics, Magazine Articles