Sears Goes the Way of Roebuck

BROOKLYN -
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

2307 Beverley Road. Does that address ring a bell?

If we identify it as “Beverley Road, corner of Bedford Avenue,” does that help?

No, it’s doubtful that many will recognize it.

I still have nostalgic memories of driving to downtown Brooklyn to shop in the Sears store at that location. My mother, who shopped there for decades, felt comfortable buying in what was then an American icon. And she still bought at “Sears Roebuck,” not just “Sears,” as most called the department store.

Although some things never change, few remain entirely the same. What began as the R.W. Sears Watch Company in 1886 was soon converted into a mail-order business, and eventually transformed into a string of department stores, mostly in shopping centers. As times changed, other forms of sales were added, including online sales.

While not a major surprise to the financial markets, this week’s announcement by Sears that it was filing for bankruptcy protection did teach many a lesson in the transience of the world. Imagine: In 2003, Sears sold its credit card business to Citibank for $3 billion. In November, 2004, Kmart announced it was going to acquire Sears Roebuck & Co. for $11 billion. Yet by 2010, Sears was no longer profitable, and from 2011 to 2016, the company lost $10.4 billion. After numerous attempts at restructuring, Sears admitted defeat and filed for Chapter 11 on Monday.

Some are taken aback by this news, wondering how the company that was the Amazon of its day could crumble so quickly. Others may be alarmed, speculating that Sears’ downfall reveals a fundamental flaw in the capitalist system. If the mighty have fallen, what hope is there for the less-significant businesses?

Economists have anticipated similar events in the past. “Creative destruction,” a term popularized by Joseph Schumpeter, a professor at Harvard from 1932 until 1950, describes the “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” If an economic structure loses its efficiency, it will eventually be done away with by newer, more competent establishments — a cycle which continuously repeats itself.

Just think of the following items: 35mm film, 78-rpm vinyl records and fountain pens. Certainly, most people are not distraught because they have become obsolete. They have been supplanted by digital photography, MP3s and keyboards that are faster, better and possibly more durable than their predecessors. Feelings of nostalgia notwithstanding, we consider ourselves better off having relegated these items to antiques stores and retro designs.

The same concept exists in nearly all constructs. Theories posited by scholars of bygone centuries are replaced by newer ones, which may themselves have a shelf life even shorter than the ones they displaced. Styles become outdated halfway through the season. We adjust and call it “progress.”

Perhaps our takeaway should be the transience of this world. Nitzchiyus is reserved for ruchniyus and the World to Come.

The next time you pass by Beverley corner Bedford, remember the shuttered stores as you journey toward the future.