Recalling 25 years of 'CCB' turns up reminder for Sears

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We started Crain's Chicago Business, Ad Age's "cheeky" sibling, in 1978, 25 years ago this month, and, coincidentally, the last time horse racing celebrated a Triple Crown winner, Affirmed. If we were in a horse race ourselves in those early years, we'd have finished out of the money.

CCB's premise was rather presumptuous-that we could dig up news about Chicago companies that eluded The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago newspapers.

Readers didn't know what to make of us. I recall writing a column for CCB in its early days playing off Chicago's second-city syndrome. If CCB was so good, Chicago businesspeople wondered, why didn't we bring it out in New York? Irv Kupcinet, the renowned gossip columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, asked me at some gathering to confirm the rumor we were about to shut it down. We weren't, and we didn't.

We worked hard to be a serious business newspaper and I guess I didn't help our cause. I wrote a column about my dog running away from home, mortifying the entire staff because I'd sullied the editorial page with such a frivolous subject. The staff drew straws to see who would tell me my column was inappropriate for our struggling paper.

What a bad rap! That column was an early example of the kind of serious journalism you read regularly in the Journal's "Personal Journal" section. In it, I gave very helpful advice on how to find a lost dog. (Tip No. 1: Don't believe the dog pound when it says it doesn't have your pet. Ours was there the whole time but they thought she was a male!)

Talk about a dog with a bone: It's taken me 25 years to explain my side of the story. So the CCB staff (some of the '78 group are still with us) should please note that I was doing trail-blazing journalism when you unjustly accused me.

You can't blame them for being a bit edgy. Ad pages weren't pouring in. The turning point for CCB came at the end of 1978, when we published an extensive report on the contents of internal forward-planning documents from Sears, Roebuck & Co. It created a firestorm and Newsweek called CCB "the cheeky young offshoot of Advertising Age."

What's most interesting to me, 25 years later, is how little about Sears has changed. It's still grappling with what kind of store it wants to be. In the documents we uncovered in 1978, it seemed to have a better notion of what it didn't want to be.

"We are not a fashion store. We are not a store for the whimsical, nor the affluent," Sears wrote then. "We are not a discounter nor an avant-garde department store. We are not, by the standards of the trade press or any other group of bored observers, an exciting store. ... We are not a store that anticipates. We reflect the world of Middle America and all of its desires and concerns and problems and faults ..."

I question whether a retailer, or any business for that matter, can get very far by not trying to figure out what its customers are going to want. By not anticipating, Sears allowed retailers such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target to carve out gigantic chunks of its bread-and-butter business. By not anticipating, Sears has become an imitator, and one that has ceased to even reflect its once cozy world of Middle America.

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