March 15, 2010

Sears Has................Nothing

I attend a regularly scheduled function on Monday nights. We provide coffee for the attendees, as is traditional, and after a long day at work, the evening seems to benefit from having a cup of Joe at hand. There are two pots, one for the high test and then one for the wimps who like to live the coffee experience vicariously through others but want to look like they are drinking the real thing. A friend claims to be able to taste a difference between the caffeinated and the decaf. I don’t believe a word of it, it all tastes like bitter dirty water unless you add sugar, cream, or whatever toxic artificial sweetener the FDA has failed to ban. Then, it tastes like whatever it is you added to it, making it closer to potability, and therefore permitting you to say to the coffee person, “Wow, this is a GREAT cup of coffee!” The pathetic souls who drink it black must’ve had their taste buds killed off by one too many deceptively hot pizzas while in college. Youngsters always forget the insulating factor of the melted cheese trapping the 800 degree tomato sauce underneath.

Enough caviling about the end result; we need to focus on the process at issue. To make a pot of coffee you need to fill the pot with water, the basket with coffee, insert the cord and plug it into the wall. The time it takes is dependent upon how much water is in the pot. A reasonable facsimile of coffee usually is brewed in about 30 minutes.

Insert the cord………….. Go to the storage box and extract the cord, which is not there. Check around the entire building in case it was left stuck in a socket to hang there like a snake caught half in and half out of the trunk of a car. There is no cord to be found within the building that belongs to you so through temporary sleight of hand, two appear and you can start the brewing process. “Ugh,” you say to yourself, I guess I need to find replacement cords. But this really isn’t a problem because you can always go to Sears and get them. After all, Sears has Everything.

You’ve heard this or some similar phrase for hundreds of years; it’s buried in the collective conscience. Craftsman tools never break and if they do, you get a free one- forever. That Sears’ appliances will last until the last Ice Age, I can vouch for this; my mother’s washing machine lasted 30+ years. The Sears Catalogue is the most accurate document of what “life was/is like” for any given year since its first publication. If Sears doesn’t have it, they don’t make it any more. This proved to be truer than you can imagine as my 90+ year old grandmother demanded, and got, corsets with metal stays up until the 1980’s. They were also the last place to sell a true Union suit for gentlemen.

The cover of the 1902 Sears catalogue- I happen to have one right here- advises they are the Cheapest Supply House- that they are The Great Price Maker, and within the 1162 pages there is all sort and kind of stuff to sell and use. Fleming’s Lump Jaw Cure [for cows], Never Root Hog Tamer, Kenwood Steel Windmills, and other equally essential items to life in 1902.

Flashing forward to 2010, I get in the car and go over to “Ye Olde Shopping Mall” nearby thinking confidently that if any place is going to have a replacement cord, it will be Sears. The drive takes almost no time and I am deposited at the entrance to the store. Pulling open the double doors I walk into the Sears of today. It bears a remarkable resemblance to a mausoleum. I am in the store for about 5 minutes before I actually see another person shopping. There are about 4-5 sales people on the floor, milling about attempting to bide time looking busy. None of them address me to ask if I would like some assistance. Since none of them are overwhelmed with customers, I find this unsettling. There is sale stock everywhere, garish beach towels in stacks in every color of an LSD drenched rainbow, countless sandals holding up the wall by the escalator, and an enormous display of Land’s End product on tables which appear not to have been touched any time in the last week. Land’s End used to be good stuff, quality, so a bit more expensive. Now, since it has been taken to Sears, as Persephone was taken to Hell, it sits in the store….lonesome, forlorn, unloved and unpurchased. Joe Boxer product sits beside the standard Sears items which render it indistinguishable and sited so that no one will notice it even exists, an ignominious end to a hugely popular label.

A trip down the escalator to what was believed was the appliance section of this store resulted in my viewing the first ACTUAL customer. The man was buying something, I mused it had better be delivered in a hurry as he was clearly on the closer side of death. One wonders if this is the demographic for the average Sears customer. Nobody else was interested in their marquee products. An idle sales person, seeing my vacant head turning, asked what I was looking for, I advised of same and was told that I would find it on the third floor.

My solo journey up the two escalators presented me with my first impression of this floor; clearance displays posted on either side of the escalator. That’s good- show me the unloved stuff first, set the mood for something exciting by displaying the wretched refuse. No longer get off the escalator and see the wonders as described in the 1902 catalogue from my 1960’s youth. Sears is there to make a sale, not make it an attractive experience. Landing on the third floor reminded of what it would have been like for the Pilgrims if instead of landing at Plymouth Rock they had landed in Death Valley: grim, tired and dreary.

The house wares department was conveniently located wherever they thought it would fit. It was not a permanent installation. There were cheap looking wire racks on wheels holding the various boxes of kitchen appliances and equipment for the customer to peruse. There was no order to the merchandise, other than clumping things together that kindof matched or belonged sortof together. It was as though the kitchen appliance department was an afterthought squeezed into an ill fitting space now that the store display team had been let go and the store manager’s friend had come by to “help out” and set it up. Name brands clumped together in unattractive ways – much like Joe Boxer down below- and products to be sold that nobody wanted.

Of course, Sears no longer has cords- at least that I could find- a walk around the floor revealed nary a single salesperson to ask. It did have really ugly house brand dishware for which they were charging very large amounts of money, single portion coffee discs and enormous yellow signs trumpeting how much lower the prices are.

It was sad. Real sad. Somehow, since my childhood when Sears was the king of retail, admired and respected nationally, it has sunk to this. Large spaces with nobody in them, stock that nobody wants to buy, at prices which make things unappealing, store design which is clearly on the cheap and a staff which no longer cares. It’s time. Would someone please go ahead and pull the plug. Some of the parts may be salvageable; Target would do well to buy Land’s End while A & F and Joe Boxer would make a cute couple. Target is the Sears of the 21st Century and Sears is sadly the Montgomery Ward. Put the poor chain out of its misery.

March 6, 2010

It's Not About the Cookies

It’s Not About the Cookies

March 12, 1911, Juliette Gordon Low, known as Daisy to her friends registered the first 18 girls into the first Girl Guides troop. Since that time more than 50,000,000 have been given an opportunity to learn and grow as capable women in the single largest female empowerment program in the world, the Girl Scouts. Such an organization needed some way to fund its activities, and the Mistletoe Troop of Muskogee OK held the first cookie sale in December of 1917.

In July 1922, The American Girl magazine, published by Girl Scout national headquarters, featured an article by Florence E. Neil, a local director in Chicago, Illinois. Miss Neil provided a cookie recipe that was given to the council's 2,000 Girl Scouts. She estimated the approximate cost of ingredients for six- to seven-dozen cookies to be 26 to 36 cents. The cookies, she suggested, could be sold by troops for 25 or 30 cents per dozen.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Girl Scouts in different parts of the country continued to bake their own simple sugar cookies with their mothers. These cookies were packaged in wax paper bags, sealed with a sticker, and sold door to door for 25 to 35 cents per dozen.

An Early Girl Scout Cookie® Recipe

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar plus additional amount for topping (optional)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
Cream butter and the cup of sugar; add well-beaten eggs, then milk, vanilla, flour, salt, and baking powder. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Roll dough, cut into trefoil shapes, and sprinkle sugar on top, if desired. Bake in a quick oven (375°) for approximately 8 to 10 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. Makes six- to seven-dozen cookies.

Thus began a common effort to raise funds for the Girl Scouts by selling cookies door to door. In a time far more innocent than today, it was expected that with the robins of spring the little girls in green, and their Brownie sisters, would knock on one’s door and ask if you would like to buy some cookies. The rise of the suburbs created the ideal environment for the various girls to manage some prodigious sales within a half mile of home. Even the dads of the 60’s were known to have shown up at the office with the tri-fold cardboard order forms to hit up the guys and gals for a box or two for little Becky or Susie. This created the dilemma of determining how many boxes to order from your boss knowing that Alice from the steno pool was going to asking for a box or two for her little girl.

It became impractical for the mothers and daughters to continue to bake the cookies at home and the districts began contracting the cookies out to the large industrial cookie manufacturers. In the 60’s, this created some odd bedfellows. The cookies we ate in Darien, CT were made by FFV Foods in Richmond, VA and the Richmond, VA cookies were made by the Little Debbie Bakers in Gentry, AK. The choice of baker was determined by each local district and being the local didn’t always guarantee the contract. Now, they’re down to 2 large contractors nationwide so that the peanut butter cookie in Muncie, IN tastes just like the one in Ms. Low’s home town of Savannah, Ga.

I never sold a cookie, not one……… I was never permitted to be a Girl Scout; instead, I was support staff. You see, my mother was a district cookie sales manager. That means that once the girls finished with the orders, the boxes and boxes and boxes of cookies would arrive in our garage, the car would be displaced and mountains of brown cardboard boxes each holding 12 boxes of cookies would rule the roost. As a support staff-person my job was to sort out the cookies, put them in boxes corresponding to the troops orders, 325 Thin Mints, 278 Butter Trefoils [Which had pictures of the merit badges on them], and hundreds of boxes of the others. New varieties would appear such as Samoas- we believed they’d never sell, and we lamented the departure of the Vanilla and Chocolate Cream Sandwiches.

Staff support persons also stayed home and sorted out the money that arrived while watching TV in the kitchen. Enormous piles of quarters, dimes, nickel and pennies which had to be separated counted and rolled. When done the hoard was taken to the district where they were deposited for the benefit of the thousands of smiling faces that had stood on countless front stoops and asked if we wanted “just one box”. The district cookie manager’s husband got the garage back and we collapsed after a hectic week of distribution and delivery. Her comment afterwards was always the same, “If I never see another box of cookies again it will be too soon.”

It was one of the first times in my life where I was to experience service work, to do something for others that supported a far larger common good. It felt wonderful back then as a kid to be able to be part of this tremendously exciting epochal event. For the girls, it was no mean feat to sell millions of boxes of a totally unnecessary product and have the full support and backing of their community.

It is a tradition spanning 90+ years now that has provided funds for the girls to go camping, education, training for role models, leaders and other expenses necessary to help the leaders do one simple thing, help turn little girls into empowered women. Whether that girl is struggling to find lunch in the inner city, earning a merit badge in computers, or getting her first up close and personal experience with a real live deer, the pathway to that adventure is strewn with cookie crumbs, purchased by her family, friends and neighbors.

It’s not about the cookies…………it’s about the girls; the women, mothers, leaders and role models that they become.

So go out, buy a box or 10, and let the girls know they matter.

Recipe courtesy