Business Finance

Sears Buys Diversity, LGBT Rights

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Aug 1, 2013

From the late 1800s well into the Great Depression, the Sears catalog was the closest many Americans came to a big-city department store. The catalog and stores across the country made Sears the nation's largest retailer, a rank it held until 1989 when Kmart, with which it merged in 2005, surpassed it. Today, Sears Holding Corp., as the company is called, includes a few other household names within its corporate umbrella such as Coldwell Banker and the Discover Card.

The Sears catalog actually has its own small niche place in gay culture. In the days when men's underwear ads were limited to those head-to-toe union suits (themselves popular catalog items), gay men treasured pictures of men in underwear. No matter if they were sexless or how airbrushed the private parts were; this was still a revelation to rural gay men.

Fast forward several decades. Today, Sears, which is headquartered just outside Chicago, is one of the most gay-friendly retail giants. Its treatment of employees -- same-sex partners, regardless of legal status, received the same benefits as spouses; it helps underwrite medical and counseling treatment for transgendered workers -- earns it a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign's Workplace Equality Index.

GLAS, the employee LGBT group, works with corporate officers to develop and update diversity training and address any issues that arise. It also helps develop and informally reviews LGBT-targeted marketing. In its home base of Chicago, Sears' employees march yearly in the city's Pride celebration. Sears Holdings is a member of the Chicagoland Leadership Council for the group that puts on Chicago's annual Pride.

While the company does a lot of good in the gay community, for some reason it has flown under the radar. The one time it made any news at all was when one of Kmart's top executives left Sears Holdings Corp. to work on the campaign that tried to stop California voters from approving Proposition 8 in 2008.

Another senior executive, this one still working at Kmart, Bill Stewart, was appointed to the board of GLAAD that same year. Stewart also sponsors the in-house LGBT group.

At least Equality Wed magazine noticed when it listed Sears as one of the five retailers it recommended as a bridal registry. Even so, most people are not aware of the company’s forward thinking about all things gay when they’re considering buying a washing machine or sheets.

The company often does well for itself by helping organizations in such a way that it also promotes items sold in stores. For example, it partners with benefits that tie in with merchandise, such as the annual "Design on a Dime Extravaganza." The beneficiary of this interior-design event is Housing Works, a New York group that advocates the state and local government to provide or subsidize adequate housing for people with HIV or AIDS.

This is one of those affairs so beloved by those who live to redecorate their homes. Each participating interior designer makes over one room of the show house. Sears and Kmart donate merchandise to the designers, so "Design on a Dime" allows Sears a place to show its wares to a well-heeled clientele.

Another good example is "Team Up to Stop Bullying." Initiated by the retailer, this campaign brought together over 50 anti-bullying groups across the country. Sears provided guidelines to parents and children affected by bullying. It created a T-shirt promoting the documentary "Bully" and had a one-day savings pass that donated 15 percent of all back-to-school items.

The Sears catalog may have been the great-grandaddy of today’s ubiquitous -- and certainly much more explicit -- men’s underwear ads, but that was hardly intended. Did Kmart air the first national TV ad showing a gay couple?

Back in 1993 (before the Sears merger) one of its "Show Your Colors" campaign showed three pairs of people talking about buying garden gifts. The second couple is two guys in suits. One suggests a chainsaw for the other’s dad. When reminded by his companion his dad doesn’t use firewood, the man then says, "No, but we do" as he puts his arm around him. In 1993, this was revolutionary enough to get wide press attention. Kmart pulled the ad.

Whether or not Kmart got cold feet, Sears has never been afraid of repercussions from gay marketing. One of the original advertisers on the gay TV channel Logo earned it a scolding from the ultra-homophobic American Family Association.

The ever-outraged AFA was also involved in a controversy with Kmart. The AFA had boycotted Kmart for five years because it also owned Waldenbooks, which was accused of selling "pornography." AFA took credit for Kmart divesting itself of Waldenbooks, even though it’s highly doubtful the group’s pressure had any effect on what was purely a business decision.

The AFA was only one of several right-wing watchdogs that got its knickers in a twist recently over a recent Kmart ad. This one had a wide variety of shoppers utter the catchphrase "Ship my pants" to promote the store’s free shipping policy. The bluenose groups perhaps inevitably misheard the words, or assumed that others would do so.

The funny thing is that the AFA never even noticed that Sears not only was a founding advertiser on Logo, but it also was an original sponsor of chat. It was -- and remains -- highly unusual for a national brand to run in such an environment, since we all know what’s usually talked about in gay chat rooms can get pretty "blue."

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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