The year was 1970. I was barely 7 years old, growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. and already an avid football fan. I loved the Redskins and I loved football, well beyond any other sport. While other kids were buying pack after pack of that awful chewing gum in search of an elusive Johnny Bench rookie card, all I wanted were football cards. Any kind of football card would do, but I especially coveted Redskins cards.
I played tackle football, much to my parents’ chagrin, in the neighborhood pretty much every day, come rain, shine, or (especially) snow. My dad enthusiastically helped coach (and even more enthusiastically yelled at other coaches of) my Pop Warner teams. On Saturdays, he and I would watch college games together when we could, and we never, ever missed a Redskins game on Sundays.
I just couldn’t get enough football in my life.
Wishing for the Wishbook to Arrive
And so it was in this context that, as Christmas 1970 drew near, I found myself sitting by the mailbox, day after day, waiting for the Sears Wishbook to arrive. Every year, when the Wishbook would arrive, my sister and I would argue over who got to look through the Wishbook first. When my turn came, I would steal away to my room, all the better to peruse, in peace, page after joyful page of toys, games and sporting goods, just waiting for that feeling to strike.
You know the feeling. It’s the “I want that!” feeling. Nothing inspired that feeling as powerfully as the creative descriptions typical of the Sears Wishbook. When that familiar feeling would strike, as it always did, I would dog-ear each page, circle the desired items, and, after reviewing every page, hand the creased, well-used Wishbook back to my mom so that she could alert Santa of all my material desires.
The Wishbook as Conduit to the North Pole
Except in 1970, things were different. I didn’t need the Wishbook to suggest gift ideas. I knew exactly what I wanted. I just needed the Wishbook to help me communicate my desire with the jolly old man from the North Pole. Because that year I wanted a football game. Not just any football game, but an electronic football game. If you’ve never experienced one before, I am sorry for you, because these things were awesome. Line up your players, point them in the direction you wanted them to go, and…flip the switch!
Electricity would magically begin to flow and the field would vibrate. As it vibrated, all 22 players would move – more or less – in the direction you had them pointing and play would continue until a “tackle” was made. Then you flipped the switch again and the board grew still: time to set up for another play. It would take at least 5 minutes to set up all the players and only about 20 seconds to run an actual play. You might think it tedious, but you would be wrong. In an era before video games, this thing was mesmerizing. And kids my age couldn’t get enough of it.
The Treasured Treasure Hunt
But I digress: back to the Wishbook. I knew I wanted an electric football game, and there was no doubt about which game I wanted, either. I wanted the Sears’ Tudor 1970 Super Bowl model #633 Electric Football Game. The no. 633 Model was, to my young eyes, the best electronic football game ever. I craved realism, and the field on the no 633 was almost an exact replica from Super Bowl IV earlier that year. The coveted Lombardi Trophy was at mid-field, bordered by the team helmets of the Vikings and Chiefs. The logos for the two teams were even painted in the end zones, and the cardboard clip-on crowd added a further touch of realism. It was perfect, and I wanted it.
When the Wishbook finally arrived that year, I grabbed it from the mailbox, ran to my room, and quickly flipped through it. I ignored everything until I found model #633. And when I found it, I didn’t merely dog-ear the page and circle the item as I had done so many times in years past. I ripped out the entire page. Santa never brought me everything I asked for. This year I was taking no chances. I only asked for that one thing. I gave the torn page to my mother, and answered her quizzical look with a simple, “That’s it, Mom. That’s all I want.”
Big Wishes in Big Boxes
Evidently, she got word to Santa, because on Christmas morning, there it was, under the tree. I remember wondering how he fit that big box (didn’t you love big boxes under the tree when you were a kid?) down the chimney, but honestly I didn’t really care. I just wanted to play electric football.
And play I did. I played for hours upon hours upon hours, for many years. I absolutely loved that game. My father loved that game. We forged lifelong bonds playing that game. And as time passed and I collected new teams with new players (including the Redskins, of course), I never traded up to a “fancier” playing field. That ultra-realistic Super Bowl model #633 was legit. You weren’t prying that away from me with a crowbar. Heck, it was just a few short years ago that I finally gathered the strength to donate that beautiful, mesmerizing, magical game to charity. The Wishbook had worked its magic once again.
For my family, and for many other families like ours in the seventies, the Sears Wishbook was an extremely important holiday tradition. As kids, our Christmas lists were derived almost exclusively from this book of dreams, and our parents relied upon our Wishbook findings to help manage the scope of their oft-exhausting holiday shopping journeys.
When I got older, Wishbooks and catalogs were largely supplanted by the Internet. Eventually, I bet my career on my ability to help retailers leverage the Internet to replace catalogs. And through it all, I never lost my affection for the Sears Wishbook. I never forgot the feeling of wonder it inspired, nor the magic it contained: the Sears Wishbook was a direct link to Santa Claus!
Time for Transformation…Again
Sadly now, as I listen to those grueling quarterly calls with the Street, I hear the steady drumbeat of caution coming from Hoffman Estates, and I am saddened. I am saddened by the struggles of a brand that once played an important role in consumers’ lives – and in children’s Christmas mornings – for over a century. I am saddened by the daunting challenges they face as they try yet again to reinvent themselves.
That isn’t to say that they can’t do it. They have reinvented themselves before. For the first half of the twentieth century, they represented the the best catalog – in fact the best retail — option for millions of consumers in small towns across America. After World War II, they transformed into the traffic-drawing anchor of thousands of suburban shopping malls around the country. And they thrived for another four decades.
That is, until things changed, again. And Sears was forced to adapt, again.
This time feels different, I am afraid. They’ve been trying to adapt for close to 20 years, and they haven’t yet found the winning formula for effective transformation in this new retail world. Although it hasn’t been for lack of effort: for years, they have often been ahead of the curve with many of their omni-channel strategies. For a time, trade publications routinely ran stories praising Sears’ vision. They were actually executing omni-channel strategies before most retailers even knew what omni-channel meant.
Unfortunately, despite their admirable efforts at innovation, consumers haven’t responded, and now the massive expense of maintaining all that real estate in all those malls is crushing the company. Despite shedding 2,000 stores in the past five years, net losses for the same period are approaching $10B. Their debt is staggering. Management keeps looking for a way out, but as yet they haven’t found a comeback strategy that works with today’s consumers.
And so, as I pen this post a few days before Christmas 2016, my Wishbook for Sears contains a sincere hope that they will find a way to shed some of that debt. My Wishbook for Sears also contains deep optimism that shedding more stores and renegotiating leases will free them to invest in new assortment and engagement strategies that will fuel a rebound. I certainly hope they can do so before the financial clock runs out.
In the meantime, I wish to extend a heartfelt thank you to Sears, from my 7 year-old self, for all the magic, and for so many Christmas wishes come true.
So thank you, Sears. And Happy Holidays everyone. May all your Wishbook wishes come true.
Editor’s Note: The awesome vintage photo accompanying this post comes to us courtesy of Earl Shores at The Unforgettable Buzz. The site is a colorful, nostalgic trip down memory lane for fans or collectors of electric football games past. As fate (or Wishbook magic?) would have it, Earl is crafting a post to be published to their Facebook page tomorrow that highlights the exact 1970 Super Bowl model no. 633.