With sunshine, a light breeze and temperatures in the mid-40s, today’s weather was downright pleasant for December in Illinois. I ran some errands with the Mrs. and decided today would be ideal for working in the garage. I grabbed a case of Mobil One and a Mopar oil filter and decided to dig in to a project after lunch. Any activities in my winter-prepped garage require playing a game of “musical cars” in order to open up some space. 4 cars in the 3 stall garage had to be moved so I could finally change the oil in the daily driver Jeep Patriot (it’s paid for).
The oil change went like clockwork, but I decided to double-check the air filter for good measure. As is often the case in my garage, one thing led to another and I ended up dropping an air box screw onto the lower engine cover, requiring some ‘fishing’ with my Craftsman magnetic pickup tool with LED light (model #46946). After I tightened everything back up, I noticed both battery terminals had some corrosion on them. Naturally, they had to be completely disconnected, sanded, smeared with dielectric grease and reattached. I gathered my Craftsman 36-tooth 1/4 inch ratchet (model #44807) and tore into the crusty cables.
Fast forward to one hour and two beers later, and I’ve managed to drop my 10mm socket (model #34606) down into the engine bay and onto the cover again. The reason? My poor Craftsman ratchet’s quick release is permanently stuck on “release” and won’t hold onto its sockets. What’s worse is the once-proud tool has been like this for about 2 years now, the result of a damp garage and some strategically-placed rust. I tried a WD-40 bath. I tried some club soda. I even tried my favorite penetrating oil, PB Blaster, all to no avail.
“No problem.” I said to myself. “It’s a Craftsman.”
An American Favorite
For those who grew up in any American household in the last 90 years, the name Craftsman was likely stamped, forged, cast, engraved or lithographed onto something useful just a few feet away from you at all times. Whether it was a hammer your Dad used to build a bungalow (or , or a ladder your Mother used to paint a child’s bedroom, Craftsman tools were always there to help make a house a home. If you were mechanically-inclined, by high school you may have received a small Craftsman ratchet and socket set as a Christmas gift. And as a young adult with a home of your own, you likely splurged and bought a few more.
Since 1927, Craftsman products were quality tools that you seldom had to throw away because the company backed most of them with a lifetime warranty.
Then, the bottom dropped out. Sears stores nationwide started to fall like dominoes. I ignored most of the pundit’s remarks and analyst predictions because I didn’t want to believe that America’s department store was really on life support.
Besides, my local Sears was still open. Heck, I ordered some Craftsman tappet wrenches (model $44189) for the ’55 Plymouth last year and stopped by their merchandise pickup window to get pick them up- just like my Mom and Dad used to do. Everything seemed perfectly fine.
Then the news came that my local Sears store would soon be closing its doors for good, and my denial quickly morphed into extraordinary sadness. But there was no time for tears, I still had work to do and a broken ratchet to exchange! I finished up the Jeep’s winter maintenance, then I fired it up and ran over the local mall. If I wanted to see if Sears still honored their Craftsman lifetime warranty, now was definitely the time.
Stepping inside the Northwoods Mall Sears store was not unlike other end-of-days retail liquidations. There were the usual high-visibility signs with tasteless fonts notifying customers of just how much they’ve marked the merchandise down. The shelves were wiped out, merchandise was strewn all over.
Just like ghosts of retail past, Circuit City and K-Mart, there was no cheery holiday music being piped throughout the aisles, only the string of questions from ravenous customers.
“Is this 60% of the price on the shelf?”
“Can you hold this?”
“Can I return this if it doesn’t work?
I’m not an English major, but if the sign says ALL SALES FINAL, I’m thinking no.
I paced back and forth looking at the barren shelves in the hopes that Sears would still have one 1/4 inch drive ratchet. I finally found one hanging at the end of a row near an end cap. With a gleeful tingle, I plucked the little guy and took him to the nearest register.
The young man who greeted me quickly exchanged the item and printed me a receipt. I told myself I wasn’t going to get emotional, but eventually, I just started to pour my feelings out all over the counter as if the poor clerk was my therapist.
“This is depressing. You guys have to hear that a lot, I’m sure.” I said.
“Yes, we do. All the time. It really is, though.” he replied.
I recalled getting Craftsman tools for Christmas and putting them to use over three decades worth of bicycle, automotive, and household projects. The tools my Dad and my Grandpa still use have the Craftsman name on them. I feel like I should have an Irish wake for the company.
Is that weird? Maybe, but I can assure you it’s not any weirder than the current predicament in which we find ourselves. That predicament is the same one you’ve heard those of a certain generation yammer on about, but it’s 100% true. People don’t fix things, they replace them.
The Age of the Family Handyman is Dead
We are witnessing the death of a part of American culture. Sure, it’s truly a liquidation of another long-standing retail giant who failed to adapt to changing consumer trends, but it really is deeper than that. We’re burying part of ourselves.
Nobody uses tools except professionals. For the record, this applies to handymen and handywomen alike. Think about it. Unlike our parents, we don’t get the Craftsman toolbox out of the basement and fix the broken dishwasher. We simply make a phone call and a new one gets installed.
We have cars that don’t require oil changes every 3,000 miles and when they do, they’re done at the dealership using a fluid extractor instead of a wrench and drain pan. Nobody wants to get their hands dirty, anyway.
Our kids don’t need to have their bicycle tires changed or chains replaced because they don’t ride bikes anymore. They’re busy playing whatever it is they play on their video device du jour.
Humans who do occasionally have a tool in their hand are now the weekend enthusiast who likely doesn’t care that the chrome vanadium sockets from Harbor Freight start to peel after 90 days because they bought a 96-piece set for $4.99 with a coupon. They’ll just buy another set next week.
Sorry Sears, it was a good run. On behalf of all Americans, I’d like to say we can’t justify paying a reasonable price for awesome stuff. We’d rather have cheap garbage.
So you’re a Craftsman fan. Will you still be able to exchange a broken tool with a lifetime warranty even if the store that sold it to you went belly-up?
The home improvement giant Lowe’s is supposed to honor the Craftsman tool warranty until the end of time. There have been some online stories about some stores not living up to their word, but I was assured by the Sears employees that Lowe’s will continue to swap out your broken ratchets, screwdrivers or anything else that was once covered by the “until death do us part” warranty. Time will tell.
Adding Insult to Injury
You might think that with a successful warranty exchange for a broken 1/4 inch ratchet, I would be happy. I have to be honest, I’m not. The clerk at the register was a very nice man, but as of February 16th, he and everyone at the Northwoods Mall Sears store will be out of a job. While making small talk, he told me that he started an IT job to keep the bills paid… “until the robots replace me there.” he said.
He’s probably right, too.
As for Sears, the plastic bags they put their customer’s final purchases in proudly advertise their 185 years of history, right above the small print that suggests you take them to your local Sears store for recycling. Here’s a hint: the clock’s ticking and the recycling system in the U.S. is broken, anyway.
As I exited the store and headed to the parking lot, I noticed a “we’re hiring” sign plastered on several of the doors. I don’t think the employee discount is what it used to be.
If you have any broken Craftsman tools with a lifetime warranty still laying around your workbench, or sitting in a drawer in your toolbox, I’ll offer you a nickel’s worth of free advice: Get to your nearest Sears store (if you still have one) and get it exchanged while you can.