Sears: is the neighborhood store toast?

May 3, 2009

My friend Grady walked into the office giggling the other day. “I have to tell you,” he said, “I tried cleaning my gas grill like you said. And it burned up.”

534-flame-broiledSee, I’d read in a recent Cooks Illustrated that a good way to burn up the excess grease in the grill, to clean the grate and prep it for salmon, was to put a layer of tinfoil over the grate, crank up the heat and wait 10 to 15 minutes. Worked for me. So I bragged to Grady about it. Then he tried it. “Flames were shooting out the front of it. Melted my knobs,” he said. Just as I prepared to offer my deepest condolences, to even offer to help replace it, Grady giggled again. “It wasn’t your fault. The whole pipe was rotted. So I went to Sears online, ordered all the parts, new burners, new knobs, everything, put it all together, cost less than $40.”

So two lessons. Yes, it’s OK to clean some gas grills by superheating them. And two? Anybody can order replacement parts for Kenmore and Craftsman stuff. Which is awesome, Rather than replace the entire grill — as Grady might have had to do with an off-brand — he simply replaced a few parts that were easily ordered. That’s awesome.

Just don’t try going to your neighborhood Sears store and expecting to get even close to the knowledge or service a simple google search would net. Thinking I’d support my local retailer and try to keep a few jobs local — unemployment in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon is pushing 15 percent — I tooled on down to the nearest Sears in search of a garage door opener remote control. “If I buy the wrong one,” I thought, “I can just bring it back.” Remembering Grady’s words, I scribbled down my model number and even took my user manual into the store with me.

I found a display of replacement remotes and a bevy of hungover-lookin’ sales dudes, with little more than bad goatees and worse stories about the night before. They huddled around the sales desk so caught up in bragging about rolling in late unnoticed, they hardly noticed me.  All the replacement remotes were $39.99, all had different specs, some for openers with green buttons, some for black buttons, some for blue… Mine? It has a red button. No worries. I’ve got the model number, I thought. Finally one of the badly bearded sales dudes wandered over. After briefly glancing at the cover of the manual that remained in my hand, he pointed at one. “If I had to guess, I’d say that one would work.”

“I can guess on the Internet. Can we look up my model number, maybe order a part?” I asked.

He shook his head. “That department doesn’t open for a couple more hours,” he said.

I grumbled something about how he needed to know his product and headed for the door. On my way out, I noticed an 800-number on the back of my manual. I dialed it while still in the parking lot. Before reaching my car, I’d given the Sears phone rep my part number, he identified the replacement, promised it would work, and finalized my shipping address — all in less time than it took to talk with the hungover doofus inside. Intelligent conversation aside, the remote I ordered also cost $26 with shipping, more than 30 percent less than any comparable in-store product. There are plenty of smart people around town who’d love a job. Too bad hungover sales reps aren’t as easy to replace as grill parts.


Seattle: what Detroit might have been

April 25, 2009

Detroit built cars, Seattle made planes — for the glory decades of the 20th century that was true, anyway. Now, however, the cities are following very different paths. Hindsight might be obnoxious, but its irony can be painfully insightful.

This morning, I swilled coffee and read an article in Fast Company about Seattle, named the magazine’s City of the Year. The article, by Garth Stein, details the city’s emergence as an intellectual, geological and gastronomical land of plenty. Once the land of Boeing — because of easy access to timbers needed for planes during World War I — it  is now the land of Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, REI, Jones Soda and many, many more innovative companies and bio-tech researchers.

While I read, in the background, NPR’s Steve Inskeep was reporting on Weekend Edition from Detroit, a broken down city plagued by a lack of industrial vision, marked by Ford, GM and Chrysler’s collective failure to transition from automakers into transportation titans. Detroit’s city leaders hitched their wagons to a dying industry. And now, the nation and taxpayers must help them tighten up a rusty, rusty belt. We’re paying the price now for yesterday’s conservative, stay-the-course philosophy.

Meanwhile in Seattle, a spirit of innovation, of creativity, of self-sufficiency long ago allowed the city’s economy to soar beyond the work of making planes.  Seattle’s unemployment rate is less than half that of Detroit’s. And its prospects for the future are much, much brighter. Amazon’s reporting record profits. And this week, Microsoft reported that for the first time in 23 years its profits declined. During the worst economic times in 80 years, profits declined. They did not evaporate, and Bill Gates is not panhandling. Over the same period, Detroit stood idle or slid backward, committed to milking the last drops of prosperity from a shrinking industry. Seattle moved beyond, intent on the future, forward-looking, do-it-now types setting the stage for the next century.

Detroit could have been a rustic gem of the midwest, where creativity and efficiency blossomed. Instead, taxpayers will prop it and the Big Three up a little longer, desperately grasping for innovation they should have been chasing years ago. The hybrid has left the building. And it’s a Toyota. The high speed train? Light rail cars? Mass transit?

GM, Chysler and Detroit could have headed that direction a decade or two ago. They could have built a lot of things other than rusty piles of debt and layoffs. We can only hope it’s not too late.  The only thing more obnoxious than hindsight? Repeating history.