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.