Answer Man

Sears was retail king for decades

A home advertised in the Sears catalogue.
A home advertised in the Sears catalogue.

Q: Recently, I saw a special on Sears houses, which were kits sold by Sears decades ago to build a house. When I was a kid, there was no Wal-Mart or Kmart in the area, only Sears, and it seems like they sold mainly clothes and appliances. In their heyday, weren’t they a juggernaut in the retail world? What else did they sell? What caused their downfall?

Bill Craft, of Fort Russell

A: When Richard Warren Sears teamed with Alvah C. Roebuck in 1893 to form Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago, they were pretty much the only game in town, especially for the country’s farmers, who were looking for an alternative to the high prices and limited selection at their local general stores.

The new company was happy to oblige. In 1893, its first catalog offered only watches, which was how Sears started in the retail business when he was just 23. But the new store quickly diversified. In 1894, the catalog had grown to 322 pages with offerings from clothes to sewing machines. By 1895, what became known as “the consumers’ bible,” was up to 532 pages producing sales of more than $750,000. By 1896, the company was offering dolls, stoves — even groceries.

When people began flocking to the cities, Sears followed suit, opening stores first in working-class neighborhoods, then in urban centers and later in the suburbs and shopping malls. In 1933, it issued its first Sears Wish Book, a catalog of toys and gifts to supplement its regular Christmas catalog. It added Allstate Insurance in 1931. Brand names such as Craftsman, Kenmore and DieHard became synonymous with its stores. As a child, I would go with my parents to the Sears department store at 112 E. Main while four blocks farther east was what my folks called the Sears “farm” store, where I visited Santa Claus. In 1974, Sears made history when it finished the tallest building in the world, its 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago.

But for the past decade, Sears has been experiencing massive sales declines, resulting in billions in losses to its bottom line. It sold off its credit card operations and its financial services arm, including Dean Witter Reynolds and Discover Card. After more than a century in business, it announced in 2004 that it was being acquired by Kmart.

So how did the big gorilla become just another merchandising creature battling for survival? Economists point to several reasons. For one, the country’s slow economic recovery from a deep recession hit Sears’ core clientele — its middle and low-income shoppers — especially hard.

But perhaps a bigger reason can be found in that song from the musical “Gypsy” — “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” Wal-Mart seems to have taken over the low-price leadership and megastore concept. Target is trendy. Best Buy became big in electronics. Home Depot and Lowe’s became the one-stop havens for home improvement. Amazon came to rule the Internet roost. Sears not only failed to set itself apart but allowed its stores to decline as well, according to Ira Kalb, of the University of Southern California School of Business.

“There are numerous complaints about messy, shabby-looking stores and rude sales associates,” he wrote in Business Insider in 2012. “As any business knows, once customers leave, it is difficult or impossible to get them back.”

And the struggle continued last year when Sears dropped the Kardashian Kollection, a clothing line it was hoping would draw the young and fashion-conscious back to its stores.

Q: Every year in the spring and fall, I see huge flocks of black birds. If you see them coming, you can watch for 15 minutes or longer for them all to pass. I am pretty sure, but not positive, that they are not red-winged blackbirds that tend to show up later in the rural areas near cattails and water. Is there another species I am not aware of ? Where do they end up? Do they harm crops or disturb other birds? Finally, another bird I miss by its absence is the killdeer, beautiful little birds that look like a sandpiper and fly reluctantly but run before flying when startled. O'Fallon had many for years, but now I don’t see them.

Howard Stonesifer, of O’Fallon

A: Probably anybody who drives around country roads knows you’re not exaggerating. A few Sundays ago, I was headed to Mascoutah on Illinois 177 and suddenly thought I was in the middle of a remake of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” as thousands swirled and swooped, heading from one field to another looking for lunch.

What we’re currently seeing are either grackles or the Sturnus vulgaris — the common or European starling, according to Trudy Moore at Wild Birds Unlimited in Swansea. And while some from Canada and the Great Plains may venture farther south for the winter, those around here likely are simply eking out a living as they wait for the farmers to get back in their fields.

“In winter, common grackles forage and roost in large communal flocks with several different species of blackbirds,” according to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. “Sometimes these flocks can number in the millions.”

Normally, these birds feed in the fields, chowing down on insects, seeds and the like. But this time of year, Moore says, you may find them trying to muscle out smaller birds at your backyard feeder. To deter them, Moore recommends using safflower seeds, which these birds cannot crack as readily, or installing cages around the feeders. But, Cornell says, they are resourceful. Grackles sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American robins, raid nests, and kill and eat adult birds.

“Usually once the farmers start to get back into the fields, they will go back there, but it’s very normal to see big flocks like that all the time,” Moore said. “You’ll have like 50 or 100 of them roosting in a tree. It gets a little creepy.”

As for the killdeer and other favorites, remember that all the new subdivisions in the O’Fallon-Shiloh-Fairview Heights region have brought upheaval to the bird populations.

“There’s been so much more construction and things so a lot of birds are losing a lot of their habitat,” Moore said. “So bird populations do shift. But killdeer are such cute little birds. You can walk on a nest and not even realize it because it’s so well disguised in the ground.”

Today’s trivia

What country gave rise to the card game canasta? What year?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In 1941, Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan’s first wife, locked lips with Regis Toomey for three minutes and five seconds in “You’re In the Army Now” (which ran only 79 minutes total). In its book of world records, Guinness began listing it as the longest kiss in movie history.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer