Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Last Sears

Place: Taco John's
Lunch: Two hard shells, chicken quesadilla, Pepsi

I've been on a chicken quesadilla kick lately.  No idea why.  This one may cure me of it.  It's not very good.  The chicken kind of sucks and they put peppers in it.  The one I had at Taco Bueno on Sunday was waaay better.

We've been watching the co-owned Sears and Kmart go downhill for years now.  We had two Kmarts and a mainline Sears store in town at the beginning of the year, but now both Kmarts have closed and the last Sears in the area...and the second-to-last one in the state...is going too.  (This doesn't count the small Sears Hometown stores, which aren't really part of Sears anymore.)

The mall owner said it best when referring to the closure of the nearly 60 year-old property in the (also rapidly failing) local paper..."This was the slowest iceberg hit."  They've been expecting this for years.  Sears, as usual, claimed the closure is "part of the company's “ongoing efforts to streamline the company's operations and focus on our best stores.”

Thing is, there aren't that many "best stores" left.  500 or so.  There were 3,500 in 2010, or so says Wikipedia.  Jeepers.

Sears is doomed to die, and soon.  I've been wondering aloud why they (and Kmart) even bother anymore for the last 15 years or so.  The professional financial analysts haven't been much kinder.

Growing up in a small town on an island you couldn't drive off of that didn't even have access to a McDonald's until like 1985, the Sears catalog store was the place to order anything and everything.  You could order HOMES from them in the early 1900's.  Who didn't go through grade school in at least a pair of Toughskins, the nearly indestructible and colorful pants that had no style whatsoever.  Some Sears brands were highly regarded.  DieHard batteries were the best.  Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances weren't exactly considered crap. 

We got our first Atari VCS (actually the Sears branded version) and all the games for it from Sears.  While I got my Atari 5200 elsewhere, Sears allowed me to purchase nearly every game made for it.  My first portable music device...a handheld cassette player...was ordered from Sears.  Browsing their catalog for stuff to buy was a childhood pastime, not unlike browsing online stores today.  In a way, they were the Amazon of their day, aside from media (they didn't sell books or music).  It's ironic when you think about it...they had for decades the infrastructure and experience to be what Amazon is today, and they just pissed it all away over the years.

I wouldn't say the internet killed them.  They've been going downhill far longer than the internet has been around.  I remember purchasing my first microwave from a mainline store in the late 80's and the sales woman, a middle-aged woman who did NOT come off as the seller type, pushing me to buy the extended warranty.  The one that had been all over the news as being horrible.  I pointed this out and she sounded like she was reading from a card.  "Those problems have been resolved."  Sure, I'll take your word for it.  (No, not really.)  The point being, people started avoiding Sears specifically because of "customer service".  That hasn't really changed.

Product quality dropped too as Sears allegedly found cheaper vendors to make some of their own branded products.

It's probably been close to 20 years since I've walked into a Sears out of necessity, needing a Torx wrench and knowing they'd have it.  I did a recent walk-through of the Sears at Mall of America partly out of morbid curiosity and partly because I happened to park in their wing of the parking garage.  It seemed well kept, nothing like some of the horror stories you can find online about other locations, but unremarkable too.

Our last Sears is really a forgotten relic, but eventually it'll just be forgotten.  They'll bulldoze the existing building and re-purpose the space, probably with strip malls.

A once grand store replaced by nail salons and cell phone stores.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Goin' Hard

Place: Hardee's
Lunch: Memphis BBQ Thickburger, chicken tenders (w/ranch), Coke

I notice on the door that the payment options now include Apple Pay, just as it should be at every business in the world.  So I order and hold my phone near the card reader.  Apple Pay does NOT ensue.  Nothing ensues.

Me:  "What's the deal?"

Smiling Counter Girl: "I'm not sure!"

She runs to a manager.  Manager mumbles something.  Smiling Counter Girl returns.  "You have to hit the Credit button first, and then hold your phone."

Nothing indicates a credit card button, as the display has gone to Happy Star screen saver mode.  "Oh dear!  Hang on..."  She enters something in the register, leans over, and taps a button.  Nothing happens on the screen, but suddenly my phone accepts the transaction.

"Yay!" she exclaims.

Raising Cane's opened their first local location last week, and everybody's raising cane about it.  Lines not seen around here since the first Chick-Fil-A opened in town.  I don't get the appeal.  They sell chicken tenders.  Chicken tenders, toast, and fries.  That's it.  And none of it is anything special.  Their chicken tenders are fine, a little bland to my taste, but for some reason people go nuts over them.

I like Hardee's tenders better.  I like a lot of places tenders better.

I guess as long as it keeps the masses out of my way, it's fine.

Hardee's is going through an identity crisis.  The chain was acquired by Carl's Jr parent CKE restaurants back in 1997 from a Canadian tobacco giant who had basically run the chain into the ground.  CKE had intended on converting all the Hardee's stores into Carl's Jr stores (much like Hardee's did to chains like Sandy's and Burger Chef over the years) with the Carl's Jr lunch/dinner menu and the Hardee's breakfast biscuit menu, the one successful thing Hardee's had going for it at the time.  What actually ensued was a complete disaster that lasted for nearly a decade that included different logos, different menus, and even different cooking styles (fried burgers vs charbroiled) at restaurants across the system at the same time.  Roughly half the system's locations closed.  It was fascinating to watch as a bystander, and I was obsessed.

It was the Thickburger menu that finally stuck and brought Hardee's back from the abyss.  It succeeded to the point that Hardee's location count actually started growing again.

In recent years, Hardee's and Carl's Jr have been more closely aligned, sharing the same logo, restaurant designs, and some (but not all) common menu items.  A number of limited time burgers in recent years have been advertised as being "at Hardee's and Carl's Jr" in national ads.

Apparently, that's changing.  Hardee's television advertising recently has gone back to the pre-CKE Sunrise logo.  Nothing in the restaurants or on the Hardee's website are supporting this.  It's just the TV ads.


There's talk in the media that more changes will come, including Hardee's having more unique, non-shared menu items, and a new look at the restaurants.  To have more of its own identity.

I don't get it, unless CKE's ultimate plan is to sell off Hardee's completely, and therefore is differentiating the two.

There are some who speculate this is a way of separating Hardee's further from Carl's Jr's sexy advertising (a practice they stopped with the terrible "Carl Hardee Sr" campaign), which they perceive as not playing well in the Midwest (to which I say, you really don't know the Midwest).  If that's the case, who approved the "Goin' Hard at the Hardee's" advertising slogan?  "Goin' Hard" is something you do in the back room of the adult book store.  I don't want to see anyone doing that in the dining room.

The one thing I ever wanted out of all of this was to be able to buy charbroiled Famous Stars locally.  And that never happened.  (Well, it did, for about two weeks.  Then all of a sudden, here came the Thickburgers.)

I actually have a radical idea for Hardee's.

But nobody listens to me.