There was a Sears in my hometown—actually, there still is, surprisingly—and besides the cafeteria that always seemed to be serving beef stroganoff, of interest to 5-year-old me was its creaking service elevator, available for use by mothers with strollers. My younger sister was the ticket to this damp, metallic old box that clunked and heaved all the way…to the second floor.
Now, I look at Sears and other big department stores as a strange place where the world seems to run six months behind; old fashions, old electronics, and old brands like Arnold Palmer that you only ever see in one of three places: in Sears, on grandpa, or at the thrift store.
To be fair, I'm looking at this at the end of the department store's reign. Amazon and other online retailers have nailed the commodities, while smaller, more compelling clothing companies' online stores allow for limitless variety and generally lower prices…plus shipping, of course. (But I'd rather pay the few bucks for delivery than wander around a huge store trying to find help!)
In their heyday, however, it's hard to imagine such a perfectly modernized version of the old school market: a number of sections to shop in, variety that local stores can't match, the scale to offer compelling discounts, and the convenience of being able to buy most everything in one place.
Let's not forget that Sears was also smart enough to offer automotive service centres (and a range of parts) located near the main store—so while your Ford LTD was getting new brakes you could go in and shop for some leather slippers. (Side note: The last time I'd been to a Sears service centre was with my mother's V6 Mazda MPV—I'd convinced my parents to buy it on horsepower alone—because the front tires were surprisingly fragile under a 16-year-old's right shoe.)
On one hand, we have Sears. On the other, we have low-cost Kaiser-Frazer Henry J, a budget four-door sedan that Wikipedia lays out quite clearly: "The Henry J was the idea of Henry J. Kaiser, who sought to increase sales of his Kaiser automotive line by adding a car that could be built inexpensively and thus affordable for the average American in the same vein that Henry Ford produced the Model T.
"The goal was to attract "less affluent buyers who could only afford a used car" and the attempt became a pioneering American compact car."
Sold at a price less than $13,000 US in today's money, it was a great example of frugal motoring: no rear trunk lid, no wind-down rear windows, no glove compartment, no armrests, and no passenger sun visor. Power came from a Willys-Overland Jeep CJ-3A four-cylinder engine and, later, a wheezy six.
Introduced in 1950, the car was priced less than its Big Three competition but lacked the styling, convenience, and performance that the others offered…for only a few dollars more. Moreover, while drivers appreciated the car's frugal focus, the country had just been through a war and so wanted to spend their time in a nice car, not one that reminded them of sacrifice.
Kaiser-Frazer knew that the only way for the Henry J to succeed was through volume and, after three years of negotiation finally secured a deal to sell the car through Sears under their automotive brand, Allstate, for 1952.
Dealers were pissed off (as they are today with Tesla, but let's face it: dealerships for the most part are outdated and seriously terrible places to do business) and weren't happy to have to service the Allstate models…which were also better cars than the standard Henry J.
Allstate models offered a choice of engines (Series 4 and Series 6), a restyled front grille by ex-Tucker designer Alex Temulis, trunk lid, wheel covers, new interior fittings, special parking lights, new tail lights, and a locking glove box. Interestingly, basic models came with an interior seat material made from woven strands of paper that were coated in plastic—which turned out to be both attractive and durable.
In addition, the car's tires, tubes, spark plugs, and batteries were from Sears' Allstate brand—and came complete with Sears warranties.
Priced at basically the same, if not slightly less than the equivalent Henry J, the Allstate cars were attractive to buyers but—and there's always a but—the department store model had its drawbacks. First, Sears didn't accept trade-ins, and second, most stores stocked only one car, if any—so buyers had to buy a car with little more than illustrated pictures.
Allstate lasted just two years, with 2,363 sold—crushing Kaiser-Frazer's plans for the Henry J to be the country's new Model T. (So he next sold them in Japan, the first American automaker to do so, and later Israel!)
Should I mention that Sears once also sold motorcycles and scooters?