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Retail Giant Sears Files For Bankruptcy


Sears has filed for bankruptcy. The company, which also owns Kmart, hopes to keep the lights on through the holidays and reorganize. It's a new low for a retailer that shaped the country's shopping culture. NPR's Alina Selyukh has this look back.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: In the black-and-white photo that Gayle Reece sent to me, she's about four years old. It's 1955. She's wearing a swing skirt with suspenders, looking up shyly at Santa Claus at the hottest store in town, Sears.

GAYLE REECE: It was the store. We had Sears, and we had Penny's.

SELYUKH: Reece's father, John Daniel Reece, worked for Sears for 20 years in Tyler, Texas. He joined after World War Two when department stores in smaller towns were still mainly downtown on Main Street.

REECE: Back in the day, in the '50s, early '60s, all we had was dowtown. And that was Sears. It was electronics and TVs and clothing and fabric and shoes and the department store.

SELYUKH: In those days, Sears was the reigning king of retail, a chain that grew out of a watch-and-jewelry catalog company started in the 19th century. It was the shopping disrupter of its day. It brought commerce to the doorsteps of families living on farms and in remote communities, paving the way for the mail-order boom of the 20th century and, in a way, the online shopping we know today. Sears is even credited with the idea of the department store parking lot.

VICKI HOWARD: The tradition at that point was street parking.

SELYUKH: Vicki Howard wrote a book on the rise of the American department store called from "Main Street To Mall."

HOWARD: Because they're such a long-lived firm that their existence sort of paralleled a lot of different changes.

SELYUKH: Over the century, Sears tried a lot of things. It launched Kenmore appliances, Craftsman tools, Allstate Insurance. It bought stockbroker Dean Witter and real estate firm Coldwell Banker. It introduced the Discover card. But the most famous Sears creation was always the catalog.

LAURA GURUNATHAN: At the end of the summer, we would get the giant Sears catalog. And my mom would say, go through and see what you like. And, of course, I would circle everything.

SELYUKH: Laura Gurunathan grew up on a farm in New Hampshire in the '80s. She says her family didn't shop much, so gifts from Sears were very exciting.

GURUNATHAN: I felt like we had just shopped on Madison Avenue. (Laughter) I felt like a million bucks.

SELYUKH: Around that time in the '80s, Sears was known as the one-stop shop for everything from socks to lawnmowers. But then came the generation of the big-box stores. Walmart overtook Sears as the largest retailer in the country. Home Depot became the dominant place to shop for home improvement and appliances. Bad headlines kept coming for Sears.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Sears, Roebuck and Company's announced it's selling off most of the financial services empire it tried to build during the 1980s.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Sears managers are selling the tower.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Sears, Roebuck and Company is going to shut down its almost century-old catalog operation.

SELYUKH: The catalog was a dinosaur in the era of Amazon. Sears was actually one of the early stores to create a website, but it didn't do well. In 2004, Sears was, of all things, bought by Kmart, which had just survived its own bankruptcy. And since then, in a slow downward spiral, Sears became a showcase of the decline of the American mall.

HOWARD: I don't really think that there's too much that could've been done to avoid their current state. This has been a long time coming.

SELYUKH: New CEO, hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert, has bailed out Sears a few times with his own money but never figured out a long-term strategy. In recent years, Sears and Kmart closed more than a thousand stores. They sold off the Craftsman brand. The company has not turned a profit since 2010. Gayle Reece, whose father worked for Sears in Texas in the '50s and '60s, says she's sad that the company that shaped her childhood is dying. But she also says she stopped shopping there herself about 10 years ago. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.