Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Softer Side of Sears

I know people who pride themselves on the fact they do not own a TV set, or watch TV, or are unaware of anything going on in the world of popular culture.

I am not one of those people. Popular culture is my daily bath water, and TV is the faucet. Not only do I enjoy television, but I revel in the cultural benchmarks of television commercials -- especially ads with catchy jingles and motifs.

Of all retail outlets in the United States, no other company has wrapped itself up more in commercial promotion than Sears. For over a century, Sears and its marketing department set the retail consumer tastes of the nation, selling items as disparate as blue jeans and do-it-yourself house kits. During its heyday, Sears was the of its time, and retained that status through most of the 20th Century.

Sears television marketing has faded since it was purchased by K Mart Corporation, but the decades preceding the merger presented a fantastic array of 30 and 60-second entertainment lozenges. They're short time capsules of  what the folks at one of America's largest retailers thought we'd be persuaded to buy.

The earliest Sears commercials I can remember were for Sears Toughskin jeans. Although I was a Wrangler kid, I knew quite a few guys my age in the 60's who wore the outrageous pumpkin-colored polyster jeans made from the same material that formed the surface of trampolines.

Polyester pants, for exercising in the hot summer sunshine. And people bought this idea!

As the 60s and 70s gave way to the 80's, the focus of Sears marketing moved away from selling moms on the idea of kids' rip-proof clothing and tried to capture more male shoppers. The theme was "There's More for your Life - - at Sears." Here's a mid-80's commercial trying to show that hanging out at the mall on a Saturday while your muffler was getting replaced was a GUY thing:

The problem was that this "guy thing" ad campaign was a bit *too* successful. Women associated Sears with Craftsman tools and sweaty Sears technicians changing tires. In 1993, Sears rolled out a completely new campaign - - a campaign that would span the rest of the 1990s: "The Softer Side of Sears."

Depending on the source, everyone from Jim Brickman to Jake Holmes composed ditties touting the great variety and quantity of high-fashion women's wear at Sears. The commercials were packed with runway models playing with little kids and twirling around in prom dresses while the catchy C-F-G-C melody played over the stylish scenes. The jingle lyrics played on words that normally described the traditional hardware/appliance inventory of Sears: "electric pumps" now referred to bright red high-heeled shoes, and "plungers" could also describe some women's formal wear.

These folks didn't look like typical Sears customers. They were fashionable, carefree, and seemingly a lot more well-off than folks you'd bump into buying a gallon of Weatherbeater paint.

The campaign also tried to key in on loyalty between customers and the retail chain. Sears was a familiar name across the entire country, and the familiarity of what Sears had always provided in reliable merchandise was also underlined in these ads. Here's an institutional ad that sells more than just the products, but the Sears brand ID itself:

By 1999, Sears discovered that this campaign also over-successful. Women headed to Sears for high-fashion clothes, only to find that the selection of cotton housecoats and ill-fitting stretch pants never really changed. Unlike the marketing department's plans for fashion domination, Sears's wholesale buyers never upped their game by loading the shelves with a better line of clothes. Sales declined for the final three years of the 20th Century, so Sears moved on to a bunch of new ad campaigns, none of which were directed at getting people to believe that buying clothes at Sears was a great fashion choice.

Sears / K Mart has a muddled marketing message nowadays. I'm not sure I remember the last time I saw a memorable Sears ad. It's a shame, because the tradition of smart, fun commercials had a long history at Sears.


  1. Neat. I doubt that people younger than us will realize the cultural influence stores like Sears, and earlier and maybe moreso Montgomery Ward, had on the United States. They weren't just buildings that sold stuff. The catalogs were national wish-lists and glimpses of other lives--the scorecard for keeping up with the Joneses. And in the REAL old days, a catalog from back east could be a rare connection to civilization on the frontier.

    And who could ever forget the address for Spiegel? Chicago 60609!

  2. Ah, Spiegel - - they must have devoted 90% of their marketing budget to the final two minutes of the games shows "Sale of the Century," "Let's Make a Deal," "P.D.Q." and "You Don't Say." The Spiegel name is the only thing remaining from the original company, having been sold to a string of holding companies over the years. I guess that's the nature of retail.

    When I was growing up, mail order always struck me as a Western U.S. thing. Maybe my belief was due to the Wells Fargo Wagon song from "The Music Man," or maybe it was because my mom's best friend lived in San Francisco and would send us mail order gifts at Christmas. The only place I ordered anything by mail was the Edmund Scientific Corporation- - but that was only because no other store near me sold authentic weather balloons.

    Maybe, as you say, it's part of the frontier culture. I grew up just across the Hudson from Manhattan, and there were dozens of specialty businesses tucked away in skyscrapers downtown - - most of whom had walk-in business hours. It wasn't until I moved out west in the late 70's that I found out this wasn't a universal experience. Since then, I've joined the folks who look for boxes on the front porch every evening.