The Sears Effect

For the past number of years now, I’ve been tracking through the media the decline of the once largest retailer in the United States, Sears. For generations, the name “Sears” meant quality merchandise and service. I can remember as a boy in the sixties how we anticipated the arrival of the Sears Christmas catalog.  As I recall, it came out sometime in September and by early December the toy and children’s sections would be dogeared and dingy as they had been pored over by me and my siblings in the months leading up to Christmas.  We each had our eyes on the attractively displayed items that we wished would be under our Christmas tree with our name on it.

So, I was saddened by the headline I saw for an article in the Detroit News: “Signs at Sears ominous heading into the holidays.”  The story went on to report on how Sears, whose stores once numbered in the thousands, would dwindle down to 128 by February.  Years of cutbacks, reorganizations, and ultimately, bankruptcy, have not been able to staunch the flow of lifeblood left in the once great company. I was saddened; but not surprised.

Certainly, Amazon and internet shopping took its toll on Sears, as did the rise of Walmart.  But other stores (like Walmart, Costco, and Target) continue to thrive in the midst of the Amazonian threat and the retreat of shoppers from brick and mortar stores. They have created their own internet presence along with more nimble marketing and “reading of the retail tea leaves”.

No, Sears, among other reasons died because of an arrogant resting upon their laurels.  They were “too big to fail” and they treated their customers that way. I learned of this firsthand back in the early nineties.  All my adult life, up to then, I had been a faithful Sears customer even having my car repairs done by them.  After twenty years of such patronage, we failed to pay a bill on time, it having been misplaced in our home.  The bill was for around $14 and they charged us a $25 late fee.  We called the company and asked that in view of our long relationship with Sears and having never been late on a bill before, if that fee could be waived. They refused. I remember saying to the Sears worker on the other end of the phone, “Okay, you got me for $25 on a $14 dollar charge.  But it will be the last $25 you will ever get from me.”  When I hung up the phone, I cut up our Sears charge cards. To this day, I have not been a Sears shopper.

Shortly after that, as I shared that account with some others in the course of conversation, I found two other of my friends that had similar experiences and they too swore off shopping at Sears.  In the small circle of my acquaintances, there were three of us who had been so disaffected by Sears that we vowed to never shop there again.  How many other thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands would give similar testimony? No, Sears did not die simply due to market forces. Those were in play to be sure. But she also died of apathy.  She died of arrogance.  She died because she lost the customer commitment that once drove her success.  I recall that by the year 2000, Sears had begun their steep decline.  I remember getting a mailing from them apologizing to customers like me who had quit on Sears and asking them to come back.  Too late.

The story of Sears is a cautionary tale among retailers.  Costco, for one, has built a customer loyalty base second to none.  They treat their customers beyond well which is evidenced by their amazing return policies. They accept almost any return under almost any condition.  They realize that some people will take advantage of their generous policy, but they also know it produces brand loyalty in the long run.

But the story of Sears can also serve as a spiritual cautionary tale.  Even as Sears rested upon its laurels and alienated the source of its success, so too many Christians who once reached great heights in their spiritual lives and in service to the Savior, have begun to rest on their laurels, ignoring the source of their former success; God. I wonder if you can remember a time when Christ was more dear to you, when the Word was more alive to you, and when your service to the King and his people was more faithful.  Once you were consumed with these things.  Now, not so much.  Oh, you’re still going to church and going through the motions.  But the heart is not there.  The drive to mature more, serve better, and be more conformed to Christ has faded. Perhaps it is all just so routine now and apathy and, dare I say it, arrogance has set in.  You are resting on the laurels of your past instead of the anticipation of greater future success as a believer.  The thought is that the “source” of your success (God) will always be there.  No need to really try, advance, or strive.  He’ll always keep the spiritual “profits” rolling in.

We dare not presume that our prosperity will always remain.  Retail giants have fallen to such miscalculation. How many once “spiritual giants” have similarly fallen?  Do not allow yourself to slip into spiritual apathy or arrogance that would drive you to “spiritual bankruptcy”.  The process is often slow.  It has taken decades for Sears to fall to these depths. Their slide was barely perceptible at the beginning but turned into a free fall.  How about you?  Are you slipping a bit, spiritually?  Or has the free fall already begun?  Christ and the gospel with a recommitment to the same, can staunch the flow of spiritual balance sheets finding themselves “in the red”.  There is another “red” that can turn around a failing spirituality… even the red blood of Christ’s sacrifice that not only saves… but saves to the uttermost.  This Christmas season may each of us recommit ourselves to our “spiritual business” to the end that our “spiritual profit” might be renewed.

Terry

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