Where America Shopped

Many years ago, the wife and I declared ourselves married without benefit of license. We had procured a house. We had introduced each other’s cats to one another.

But we truly knew that we were married when we drove to Sears to buy a refrigerator.

As the huge SEARS sign loomed in the distance, our eyes locked for a moment. “This is serious, isn’t it?” I asked her. She agreed; she felt it, too. We were at the point of no return on this marriage thing: buying a major appliance together. At Sears, no less, the holy altar of domestic life in America, “Where America shops.” The preliminaries was over. It was time to get serious and make a home.

Years later we did marry legally, with license and ceremony. And yet the ceremony wasn’t half as affecting as the sight of that Sears sign swelling ever larger in the windshield.

We entered the store and waded through the muzak toward Major Appliances and a natty crew of salesmen. Neat polyester suits, wire-rimmed glasses, blow-dried hair, white teeth: you could still make good money at Sears in those days. We were corralled by an elderly woman with orange hair, a neat suit, and a name tag that read:


Brandmaster? We had no idea what that meant, but it sounded impressive. And so did the Brandmaster. She efficiently gathered our requirements and led us directly to several suitable machines. I found out later that the Brandmaster had worked at that Sears store for as long as anyone could remember.

Almost before we knew it, the Brandmaster had the sale. We purchased a sleek, white ‘fridge at a price we could afford – a Kenmore, as luck would have it – and were politely sent home with a stack of pink receipts and an appointment time when a gray Sears truck would make delivery. Burly men in gray uniforms would wheel the fridge into place as if it were made of styrofoam. It would serve us faithfully for many years.

Did we get the lowest possible price? I have no idea. But we got a reliable fridge with the features that we needed. And the whole process was efficient, painless, and managed by people who knew what they were doing. For years we spoke in solemn tones about “going to see the Brandmaster” whenever we needed something from Sears.

Time passed, and a lot of it. We purchased other appliances at Sears. Yet as the years went by it became obvious that Sears was no longer the store it had been. America was shopping elsewhere.

But when Rhumba decided that we needed a new vacuum cleaner last week, there was really only one place to go. Sears still had the best selection.

But everything else had changed. Gone were the blow-dried sales vets of yesteryear; our salespeople were two post-high-school women dressed in leggings and hoodies. “Can we help you?” they asked. But they couldn’t. They couldn’t tell us anything about the machines except what was on the display placards. “What are people buying?” I asked in frustration, and the woman named three brands: the two which advertise most heavily on TV, and then the cheapest. No help there.

So we spent 90 minutes looking at every brand and every type of vacuum cleaner under the sun. We looked at bagged machines, bagless machines, uprights, canisters, sticks, convertibles. We looked at machines with attachments, and without. We talked out our needs, and whether each machine would meet them. We lifted the vacuums, wheeled them around and tried them out.

It was a forced march. The salesclerk drifted by at one point to ask, “Are you gonna buy today?” “Eventually,” I answered tersely. She went away. But what is Sears paying her? Eight bucks an hour and a tiny commission?

Eventually we settled on a simple, lightweight, bagged upright that sucks like a hurricane. This particular brand is pitched on TV by the company’s founder, a growly old man who swears that he’ll gut himself on your front lawn if you aren’t completely satisfied. Or something like that. And satisfied we have been. Our rugs and floors turned several shades lighter after just one or two passes by the mighty upright.

Did we get the best possible price? Hell no. Did we get good service? Hell, no. We had to do all the work. Effortless it was not. The only thing Sears offered was a chance to get our hands on the machines; other than that, Amazon would have been a better deal. At Sears the Brandmaster has left the building, and with her left knowledge, service, and support: all the things that Sears really used to sell, no matter what exactly was in your hands when you walked out the door. I don’t see Sears surviving for many more years.

And you have to ask: if the salesmen aren’t paid a living wage anymore, and little service is offered, and the prices aren’t the lowest – where’s all the money going? Ask that about vacuum cleaners, about telephone and cable TV service, about health care, and prescription drug prices, and even the price of a snazzy Apple laptop made by people earning a dollar or two an hour.

I leave that question open. I think you know. And I think America ought to shop somewhere else now.

But where?

2 thoughts on “Where America Shopped

  1. Forrest Seale

    Thank Goodness. I was finally able to get my JJ fix!
    It’s the same everywhere. No one has a clue about their job if it’s in the nonservice industry. And why should they? Any extra effort that is expended manages only to be rewarded with an extra task. Soon most employees are engaged in a contest to see who can do the least and still get paid. Ya know what? I really don’t blame them. THe ones who do put in the extra effort are made “Asst. Mgrs.” or some such which means they are salaried instead of paid by the hour. Guess how many hours that kind of job requires?

    1. admin Post author

      Hey, Forrest. Yeah, when I first went out into the world of work, doing fast food and later corporate work, my father could never understand why I always complained about the job. He was a union man with plentiful work in industrial construction (pipefitting). He always worked for contractors who he liked and were friends of his. And since they were friends, they always treated him well and of course he always got his guaranteed conditions and salaries. Who wouldn’t like that job and try to do it well?

      Later in life, when the work got too hard, he went into civil service for awhile and suddenly understood what I’d been grousing about. He spent his last few working years on graves, where nobody could bother him.

      I used to know (by mail) a guy who wrote a ‘zine called Temp Slave, about making a living as a temp. And of course as a temp he was just a tool to be used as hard as possible and disposed of when not needed. If he saw some temp busting their butts on the job, he’d ask them how much money they’d get for working had, and they’d say. four dollars. And he asked them how much they’d get for taking it easier, and they had to admit, four dollars. He eventually got himself a union job somewhere and did fine. Why do we expect people to do a good job when we don’t reward them for doing it?

      The furniture store I wrote about always gave outstanding service: I mean, once we saw a rug we liked there, and came back a couple of weeks later to buy it. It was gone. They hauled out all their supplier catalogs; couldn’t find it. They finally called the owner, who was _on vacation,_ and she told them which catalog it was in. And everybody I ever worked with there was polite, happy to be there, and happy to spend time with us. Just goes to show that some combination of good working conditions, decent pay or commission, employer respect, control over your own job, and the right tools to do your job with easily, will usually make a dedicated worker. Nothing is ever “just business:” anything between two people is personal. There is always a right or wrong there, even if employers (and the “investors” who own their businesses) let greed blind themselves to it.

      I’ve changed the comments so you no longer have to give your email or have your wait to be moderated (I hope); that may be offputting to some people, though I’ll change it back if I get too much spam. I’m using a new blogging tool here and I’m still wandering around the engine room wondering what all those big red buttons are, and whether I should press one 😉


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