Home Business Sears Is Dying, but Workers’ Loyalty Lives On

Sears Is Dying, but Workers’ Loyalty Lives On

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The annual Christmas luncheon was called for noon, but many members of the Atlanta Sears Family had arrived at the church hall by 10:30 a.m.

There was a lot to catch up on: birthdays, illnesses and news of club members who had died over the past few months. There was baked ham, green beans and cherry pie for lunch. There was music — oldies and Christmas carols mostly. One club member, 84-year-old Herman Atwood, danced to “My Girl,” twisting and twirling in his Sears Roebuck sweater vest as if he was at a wedding.

Sears may be struggling to survive after filing for bankruptcy in October, its rundown and empty stores symbolizing a has-been company that failed to adapt. But across the country, legions of former Sears workers like Mr. Atwood, a retired truck driver, gather regularly to reminisce about their long careers in retailing. The brands like Kenmore and DieHard that lasted for decades. The limitless creativity of shoplifters. The impossible task of selecting the women’s shoe inventory.

For an older generation of Sears retirees, their former employer remains a central part of their lives, a throwback in an industry now known for high turnover, low wages and costly health care. Today, there are dozens of Sears alumni groups, from Bangor, Me., to Sioux Falls, S.D., forming one of the largest and most active retiree networks in the nation.

Many of the retirees at the luncheon said they viewed their time at Sears as being part of something bigger than just working at a successful retailer. They worked for a force in American culture and business. Sears sold everything: feed for chickens, Whirlpool washing machines, as well as the nightgowns, watches and erector sets in the Christmas “wish book.”

“One man came by looking for a wagon for his horse,” said Jerril Parker, who worked in security at Sears in the Atlanta area for 45 years.

Sears also had an outsize physical presence. In Atlanta, the company occupied one of the largest buildings in the region — a store, warehouse and regional office covering over two million square feet. The red brick warehouse on Ponce De Leon Avenue was a precursor to the e-commerce fulfillment centers that shipped thousands of items ordered through the catalog.

Mr. Parker recalled hiding in a refrigerator box with small holes cut into the side so he could conduct surveillance on employees unloading merchandise.

One day, Mr. Parker said, his security staff caught a young seasonal worker trying to steal seven plaid skirts for his sister and her cheerleading squad by wearing them under his pants. “He just kept getting bigger and bigger through the day,” Mr. Parker said.

Sears workers became experts in their fields — heating systems, kitchen appliances, cosmetics. And they were proud of what they sold. Elder Penny, who started at Sears after serving as a Navy supply officer in World War II, was a regional buyer of women’s shoes. Mr. Penny, 94, still has the same Kenmore refrigerator he bought at Sears in 1974.

Retirees warned long ago that Mr. Lampert’s involvement with Sears would end badly. When his hedge fund acquired the company in 2005 by merging it with Kmart, a group of former workers hired a plane to fly over the headquarters in Illinois pulling a banner that read, “Sears Unfair to Retirees.”

The group, National Association of Retired Sears Employees, has been keeping a close eye on their former employer under Mr. Lampert. They hold regular conference calls, where members detail the conditions of local Sears stores.

“I was in an auto center having four tires put on the other day,” reported Jim McCurtain, a retiree from Tampa, on last month’s conference call. “They did a great job.”

Another retiree on the call reported that her friend successfully had the ice maker in her refrigerator cleaned out by a Sears repairman, whom she noted was “very precise, very courteous.”

The retirees’ pensions are expected to survive the bankruptcy largely intact thanks to a backstop from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. But if Sears goes into a liquidation, which many analysts and investors say is likely, then the retirees would lose most of their life insurance benefits.

In the current incarnation of Sears, recruiting new members to the alumni groups has been difficult. Two decades ago, there were 250 clubs, now there are only about 45. More recent retirees, who did not receive pensions or profit-sharing, do not share the same allegiance as older generations.

“Sears was a great company,” said Ron Olbrysh, who retired from the Sears legal department in the 1990s and is now chairman of the national retiree association “But I am glad we got out when we did.”

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