But Sears faced another existential crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, and that time, it failed to adjust. The decline of manufacturing (and manufacturing jobs) hit both its most devoted consumers and the value of its real estate near steel towns. The blue-collar families Sears counted on to buy “utilitarian Sears pants and dresses … were a fading force in the marketplace,” Raff and Temin write. What’s more, other stores had chased Sears into America’s middle-class suburbs—sometimes, they even snuggled up to Sears locations in the same strip malls—erasing the company’s geographical edge.
This second existential crisis called for a second strategy shift. But, lacking the vision of General Wood, Sears’s leadership made several grave errors that doomed the company.
First, Sears determined that it didn’t need to do anything to change its business. It simply needed more businesses. After all, its leaders must have thought, if a company that started selling only watches could get into car parts, and a hardware company could get into insurance, why couldn’t a watch-and-cars-and-hardware-and-insurance company get into, well, anything? Since it was the 1980s, anything, in this calculation, meant “financial services.” As the company’s head of strategy said in 1980, “There is no reason why someone shouldn’t go into a Sears store and buy a shirt and coat, and then maybe some stock.”
Eager to become America’s largest brokerage, and perhaps even America’s largest community bank, Sears bought the real-estate company Coldwell Banker and the brokerage firm Dean Witter. It was a weird marriage. As the financial companies thrived nationally, their Sears locations suffered from the start. Buying car parts and then insuring them against future damage makes sense. But buying a four-speed washer-dryer and then celebrating with an in-store purchase of some junk bonds? No, that did not make sense.
But the problem with the Coldwell Banker and Dean Winter acquisitions wasn’t that they flopped. It was that their off-site locations didn’t flop—instead, their moderate success disguised the deterioration of Sears’s core business at a time when several competitors were starting to gain footholds in the market.
Many decades after Sears had left Montgomery Ward, its old competitor, in the rural dust, another retailer was budding in small-town America. Its name was Walmart. Located on cheaper rural land than Sears, often paying cheap wages, and selling cheaper goods for cheaper prices, Walmart’s innovation seemed to be, well, a talent for cheapness. But its secret weapon was information technology. Walmart managed its supply chain with extraordinary precision. Its distribution centers were ingeniously located in central locations to optimize for efficient delivery to its stores.