April 20, 2014

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Where Have All The Icons Gone?

These aren't just big names that are in trouble.

The New Year's saying, "Out with the old, in with the new" has never been more accurate.

Even though 2012 isn't even a month old with this writing, two companies once considered invincible in the business world, may be on the brink of extinction.

Before the year even got started, news came that Sears, a name synonoymous with American retailing, announced it was closing at least 100 stores, including stores under the KMart name which it acquired when it merged with that retailer almost a decade ago.

Sears, which once was known (and still known by some older viewers) as Sears Roebuck and Company, was the retailer which came out with a catalog in the late 19th century, a tradition which lasted until the digital age. It was able to update its image in the 1980's, carrying more trendy brands named for supermodels and other celebrities, and, in addition to its own Kenmore appliance line, also eventually sold other national appliance brands. (During Johnny Carson's 30-year run as the host of The Tonight Show, Carson lent his name to a men's wardrobe collection.)

Then there is its automotive center, which is known for its Die Hard batteries and heavy duty shock absorbers. For some reason, I still remember the commercials airing non-stop on ABC's Wide World of Sports for its shocks, which the ads said were tested "on the back roads of Morocco".

If, indeed, the store chain ceases to exist some day (after the closing announcement, the stock market reduced it to "junk bond" status), the reason might be attributed to the growth in on-line shopping. But the real reason would be the same stores which nearly forced KMart out of business 10 years ago: WalMart and Target.  It seems WalMart, in particular, is the Sears of the current generation.

And then there's Eastman Kodak, the firm which practically invented photography for the masses. That company announced this past week that it filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, apparently because it could not reap benefits from the digital photography revolution, which in the past decade has given rise not only to digital cameras but to handy-albeit still crude-cell phone cameras. An Associated Press story on the bankruptcy began with, "Kodak's moment has come and gone", referring to the company's one-time advertising campaign about "Kodak moments".

Kodak, for decades, was the first name in photography. In my years of TV watching (rather than working in the business), it sponsored shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, Bewitched, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And that must have been because it had money to burn, because it didn't have to advertise much in the early days of television. With the exception of Polaroid (whose instant cameras and film also disappeared in the past decade), it pretty much had a monopoly on the business.

And then, just as it did with the automobile business, Japan entered the camera and film game with its Fuji products. Names like Canon and Minolta marketed professional-style 35 milimeter cameras that anyone could use, making Kodak's groundbreaking Instamatic cameras and film obsolete. And while Kodak was an innovator of digital photography, other companies capitalized on it.

So you have two companies which more or less dominated 20th Century business which, while they are not gone, may have seen their best days. While the Great Recession may have been a factor in that, the fact is that the way business is done is different from just 20 years ago.

Time goes on. Some day, the companies which now dominate the business world will themselves be dinosaurs, brought down by technology and business models to which they would not be accustomed.

But I wonder whether people will lament their passing as much as some will the possible loss of these 20th century giants. After all, there are still pages in the book they wrote (even if they are now on I-Pads) that leaders of today's businesses still read.

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