Lessons on Financial Independence from My Visit to Sears

SearsLast week, I had the opportunity to visit a Sears store for the first time in about a year.

Since my previous visit, I’ve read many articles about the decline of traditional retailers, particularly Sears, but this represented an opportunity to see how things were going at Sears with my own eyes.

As someone in his mid-40s, I can remember when Sears was one of the premier companies in the United States.

Sears was founded in 1886 (I can’t remember that!) and Sears Roebuck & Company was a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 1924 through 1999. Growing up, the Sears Wish Book was required reading for my siblings and I, as it provided an almost unimaginable list of options to hope for on Christmas Day. Sears was still the largest retailer in the country when I headed off to college, and at the time also owned Allstate Insurance Company, stock brokerage Dean Witter, the Discover card, and real estate company Coldwell Banker, in addition to many other businesses. The Sears Tower in Chicago was the tallest building in the world for most of my life. Even today, brands associated with Sears, such as Craftsman, DieHard, and Kenmore, are still well-known to many Americans.

All of which is a long-winded way of explaining that, at one time, Sears was not the punchline it has become to many over the past couple decades.

But after my most recent visit, I believe the company is nearing its final days in its current form.

The store we visited did not appear to be well-stocked with inventory. In fact, large portions of the floor plan looked capable of easily supporting twice as much product as was actually on display. The rare employees we could find while in the store seemed more interested in talking to one another or using their smartphones than assisting customers. At one point, customers waited in line for a single associate to check them out, while three employees stood just feet away, engaged in a personal conversation. In another area of the store, I watched three employees putting a shelving unit together for a customer (at least they were working!), until a fourth associate came by to tell them the customer had not actually purchased the unit, and they should disassemble it.

In short, the experience was about what I expected after following the recent headlines about Sears and other traditional retailers.

So what does Sears have to do with your path towards financial independence, you ask?

Plenty, in my opinion.

First, in order to achieve financial independence, you need to care.

The Sears employees who were more focused on chatting with one another and texting on their cell phones than assisting potential customers didn’t appear to have a lot of passion for their jobs.

Saving enough money to become financially independent will not happen if you don’t truly buy into delayed gratification and care about your long-term goals. There will always be a newer car, or a bigger home, or a faster phone, or a trendier brand of clothing to tempt you to spend your hard-earned money, rather than saving it for the future. If you don’t really care about achieving financial independence, it’s unlikely you will be able to do so, unless you are one of the fortunate few who makes much more money than you could possibly spend.

Second, in order to achieve financial independence, you need to have a plan.

It’s commendable the second set of Sears employees were so focused on customer service that they started putting together the shelving unit before it had actually been purchased. But the fact they did so also demonstrated a clear lack of planning. Their efforts ended up being wasted, and the time they devoted to that task could have been spent doing something else.

For most of us, financial independence will not happen by accident. You need to have a plan for every dollar you earn, every dollar you spend, and every dollar you invest. Moreover, you need to have a plan for every dollar you plan on earning, spending, and investing in the future. Ultimately, you need to have a plan for how much money you expect to spend decades in the future, along with how much money will be needed to support that lifestyle. Getting those numbers right will not occur without a lot of introspection and deliberate planning.

Third, in order to achieve financial independence, you need to have options.

I mentioned the Sears we visited did not appear to be well-stocked with inventory. To generate retail sales in an old-school department store, having a wide variety of wares available for purchase is probably a necessity. We can debate whether that business model still works in 2017, but when you walk into a Sears wanting to make a purchase, it would be helpful if the store offered products with a wide variety of sizes, styles, brand names, colors, and features for you to consider buying.

Similarly, it helps to have options during your quest for financial independence. In the past, I’ve written about earning more, spending less, and productively investing the difference, as three keys to achieving financial independence and early retirement. Having options available to optimize each of those levers can make the path to FIRE easier, whether its earning money from a side hustle or garage sale, making more deliberate spending decisions, or considering a wide variety of investment opportunities to potentially improve your portfolio’s returns.

Finally, in order to achieve financial independence, you need to successfully adapt to changing circumstances.

Sears has clearly not evolved as rapidly as necessary to thrive in the changing retail environment. The shopping experience at a Sears store is not all that different than it was when I was growing up a few decades ago. Since then, other more traditional retailers like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target have adapted to provide an experience and value proposition more American consumers prefer. And we haven’t even discussed the impact of the Internet on retailing yet. When Amazon.com was founded, Sears was still a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Today, Amazon’s market capitalization is half a trillion dollars – more than 500 times larger than Sears’ current market cap! Interestingly, late last week Sears announced an agreement with Amazon via which Sears’ Kenmore brand of appliances will be sold on Amazon.com. Will this be a game-changer for Sears, or is it too little, too late?

The only thing we know for sure about the future is that it will be different from today. While high inflation hasn’t been a major issue in the United States since the late 1970s and early 1980s, there are no guarantees things will stay that way. What impact would double-digit inflation have on your personal financial plans? We’re more than eight years into a bull market in domestic stocks. How much longer will it last? My plans for financial independence are based upon working for my current employer with similar compensation and benefits for another four years. What happens if I get laid off next week? You can’t just set a plan and forget it – as circumstances change, one needs the ability to effectively adapt to achieve financial independence!

Are there other lessons about early retirement and financial independence that can be learned from Sears?

2 Comments

  • MyMoneyDesign

    July 31, 2017

    I still find myself calling the building in Chicago the “Sears tower” even though I know it has a different name now.

    That last point is the big take-away for me. If you don’t adapt and change with the times, your money isn’t going to last. I parallel this to people who continued to hold out for the pension system and never got on board with tax-deferred plans like 401(k)’s. When systems change, you need to figure out how you can change with them.

    BTW – Did you know that in the early 1900’s, you could buy a whole house from the Sears catalog? I read an article about this one time and it kinda blew my mind. Just like DIY furniture sets of today, all the materials for your new house would be delivered on site, and you could build your own house.

    Reply
    • ROMT

      July 31, 2017

      Thanks for visiting the site! I actually qualified for a very small old-school pension from my first job out of college, but I am not factoring that money into our financial decision making. If I get something 20 years from now I will view it as a nice bonus, but the amounts involved are not meaningful to our financial situation.

      I had heard about Sears selling houses through its catalog many years ago. It is amazing how technology has changed our world, and the companies that operate in it, over the past century!

      Reply

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