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April 7, 2015 4:33 PM   Subscribe

In 1981. Sears released its first (and last) laserdisc based catalog. It's a time capsule of fashions in both clothing and video production, and one more example of how Sears was constantly searching for the future of retail, but never quite found it.
posted by Horace Rumpole (41 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
The past is a foreign country: they do things stupid there.
posted by Atom Eyes at 4:50 PM on April 7, 2015 [15 favorites]


Interactive Laserdiscs were way ahead of their time. I worked with an IBM prototype in 1979, it wasn't out on the market yet, and when I tried to explain what it could do, people were baffled. There were some really groundbreaking projects done on LD, like the Aspen Movie Map.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:01 PM on April 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


Very interesting. And a great link to pastabagel's excellent comment about the bad left turn Sears took in 1993.
posted by salishsea at 5:08 PM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


The difference is that at least in 1981 they were trying. Trying new things and failing is by and large a good thing. By contrast, grasping failure with both hands and epically failing for all you're worth is as they did in the 1990s is, um, not. And ditto on linking Pastabagel's superb comment to that effect.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:12 PM on April 7, 2015


Just wait thirty years and see what the kids think of companies having Twitter accounts. Followed by " WTF was a Twitter, Grandpa?"
posted by Thorzdad at 5:16 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Back in the day I worked for a marketing firm that did some market research. I remember we did some research for Sears. One loyal customer told us that she loved sears because she could always get a great parking spot right up front. Conclusion? They were screwed.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 5:22 PM on April 7, 2015 [24 favorites]


Wow, I remember Pasta Bagel's comment, but in my head I had turned it into a memory of an NPR episode covering the demise of old retail.

Laserdiscs are funny in that they never felt like they were current; they were futuristic until one day they were relics of the past.
posted by skewed at 6:07 PM on April 7, 2015 [28 favorites]


Watching the first 2:20 of that, as the products whizzed by at one frame apiece, I felt like I should have hit pause and found that I'd absorbed it all and had a new and sudden knowledge of 1981 consumer products. Instead, all I retained was the part about ladies' sleepwear.

Oh 1981, Sears was your Victoria's Secret.
posted by not_on_display at 6:17 PM on April 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


That Sears comment, wow, totally plausible alternate history
posted by The Whelk at 6:19 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Watching the first 2:20 of that, as the products whizzed by at one frame apiece, I felt like I should have hit pause and found that I'd absorbed it all and had a new and sudden knowledge of 1981 consumer products.

Yeah, I immediately thought of Data accessing the computer on ST:TNG.
posted by skewed at 6:29 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


*coughs* As... an, shall we say... drone at a certain place that rhymes with "Tears" I would like to add that the CEO, a Mr. Eel invests more in the so-called social media page we have than actual IT infrastructure. The kiosk for merchandise pick-up has been down for nearly four months now with no signs of a permanent resolution. We have registers from the early 1990s that freeze up too often.

The bold solution they're proposing?

Real estate investment trusts.

Ah, you can almost hear the rats landing on the water.
posted by lineofsight at 6:49 PM on April 7, 2015 [17 favorites]


You know, I actually take some exception to Pastabagel's version of events. Well, more with where the blame was placed. You see, it wasn't so much a Sears as the business cycle being the opposite what it is now. At the time, you really couldn't keep conglomerates with unrelated lines of business together. If you didn't divest, you would shortly not be the one making the decision when one of the junk debt LBO kings came knocking.

Unsurprisingly, billions upon billions of dollars were wasted splitting up companies only to have the culture shift back to conglomeration 20 years later, wasting billions more on overvalued buyouts. Big business is incredibly faddish.

Even if Sears' executive suite had the conviction and somehow managed to keep control, they would have lost, as one always does when trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. The zeitgeist was sufficiently against them that they would have found it impossible to take on the necessary debt to fund the project, at least at any carrying cost that would have been bearable for the decade or so it would have taken to prove themselves right. Interest rates were already what we today would consider exorbitant. I've seen subprime credit cards with lower interest than investment grade bonds had in the time period in question.
posted by wierdo at 6:50 PM on April 7, 2015 [13 favorites]


The shorts ... So short. I recently found a picture of myself from 1985 or so wearing shorts with an approximately 3cm inseam with tube socks pulled up to my knees. I looked fantastic.

A friend of mine's dad swapped for a laserdisc player in 1995 or so, and it still felt like the future then. The jitter free fast forward and rewind were mind blowing for some reason. We watched Thelma and Louise go back and forth over that cliff so many times.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:54 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


So they need a 21st century Julius Rosenwald.....
posted by brujita at 7:01 PM on April 7, 2015


Laserdiscs are funny in that they never felt like they were current; they were futuristic until one day they were relics of the past.

Even weirder, they were generally considered relics of the past despite being the most advanced thing on the market in the 90s. While the rest of the world was still puttering around with VHS, LDs in the mid-90s had Dolby Digital surround and commentary tracks and letterboxing and DVD quality resolution and big Criterion releases with lots of extras. Yet if you dared mention you had a laserdisc player, there would always be the same response: "they still make laserdiscs???"
posted by eschatfische at 7:02 PM on April 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


I had the Criterion version of this LD with the commentary by Donald Richie.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:06 PM on April 7, 2015


i was hoping for a telecaster post.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 7:49 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh 1981, Sears was your Victoria's Secret.

Unless you were nassssty and held out for Frederick's of Hollywood.
posted by SharkParty at 7:58 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


qcubed: They're way way different from those other media, though! Laserdiscs aren't digital!
posted by aubilenon at 8:21 PM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


It really doesn't get much more disco...vision than this.
posted by eschatfische at 8:39 PM on April 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


looks like some sort of reflective vinyl LP, and yet you purport to tell me that it is some sort of "laser-disc"

Yep. All analog. Like a shiny LP.
posted by pompomtom at 9:04 PM on April 7, 2015


lineofsight: “The bold solution they're proposing?

Real estate investment trusts. ”
Oh, God. You weren't kidding. Jesus wept.

I mean I knew management was a shitshow because I remembered the post from a couple years back about how Lampert runs the place "cutthroat." Seriously, that dude should switch to decaf or something.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:15 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'll see your trippy Sears laserdisc framegrabs and raise you the raw Dragon's Lair disc.

But seriously, this is actually a really well done project for it's time. I can't imagine the effort it took to put all of those frames together on a chryon and keep track of it all.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:28 PM on April 7, 2015 [8 favorites]


Cheryl Tiegs!!
posted by Chitownfats at 9:37 PM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


At the time, you really couldn't keep conglomerates with unrelated lines of business together.

Even today, retail companies aren't able to get the capital to do serious technology investments. Shareholders want retailers to be solid, boring, consistent companies -- if they wanted to invest in tech companies, they'd buy tech company stock! So these companies can't really do dramatic, interesting, disruptive stuff.

By contrast, media companies are relatively free to make big, risky tech investments. They usually fail, but that's a different issue.
posted by miyabo at 10:11 PM on April 7, 2015


Cheryl Tiegs!!

Okay so in addition to the subliminal Cheryl Tiegs I received last night while watching this video, I heard her name again this morning in the half second where my car radio scanned past the morning sports talk show. There is no explanation for this.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:34 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


>looks like some sort of reflective vinyl LP, and yet you purport to tell me that it is some sort of "laser-disc"

Yep. All analog. Like a shiny LP.


That is the single best feature of LD and also its downfall: uncompressed, full bandwidth video. The movie studios were determined to kill LD once they figured out they were selling perfect masters to VHS video pirates.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:42 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


uncleozzy: Okay so in addition to the subliminal Cheryl Tiegs I received last night while watching this video, I heard her name again this morning in the half second where my car radio scanned past the morning sports talk show. There is no explanation for this.

Is the universe trying to tell you that you that it would like you to get more exercise, using Cheryl Tiegs as your spirit guide?
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:30 AM on April 8, 2015


Every time we visit the wee speck of a northern Ontario town my in-laws live in, I always marvel that the Sears catalogue pickup place is still there. It used to be a dedicated storefront about six or seven years ago, but now it's just a counter inside another store.

When my husband was a kid, the Sears catalogue was where all Christmas presents came from because they were three to four hours away from anywhere. I think there are still some older folks in town who still do all of their shopping through it because that used to be the only game in town for general merchandise. Also, the town was on dial-up internet until five or so years ago.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:42 AM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a goldmine of footage for use as a backdrop to live performance.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:12 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The movie studios were determined to kill LD once they figured out they were selling perfect masters to VHS video pirates.

I thought the downfall of laserdisc was due to it being expensive & cumbersome. Longer movies had to be split over two discs, which certainly isn't the ideal viewing experience.

Did studios stop selling movies on LD before people stopped wanting them?
posted by aubilenon at 11:13 AM on April 8, 2015


Don't forget videodisc!
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:14 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The second date with my now-husband consisted of ordering in Chinese food and watching The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover on my roommate's laserdisc player.

This was in 1998.

He was less weirded out by my choice of second date film then he was by the format it was in.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:15 PM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


aubilenon, no. DVD killed the Laserdisc.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 1:34 PM on April 8, 2015


Laserdisc was already failing soundly on its own before the first DVD player was sold in the US, in 1997.

In 1996 my college roommate bought this monstrosity. It was perfect for him. He was a broke college student*, and it was really easy to get used laserdiscs on the cheap because the format was dying and everyone** was selling off all their laserdiscs.

* still had more money than sense
** to the limited extent that "everyone" had laserdiscs in the first place
posted by aubilenon at 2:58 PM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Pastabagel's comment is great (I missed it at the time but favorited it a long time ago), but it barely mentions Prodigy. The Prodigy venture was actually really interesting in that it did have an online Sears catalog that you could order from directly. I think they shipped but they definitely had a "deliver to store" option that was served by a bunch of bins in the customer service area. You would basically get a Prodigy message telling you your order had arrived, and which bin it was in, and then you would go down, retrieve your items, show a CSR your slip, and go home. In 1990, pre-web.

So in effect not only did they have an in-house Amazon.com, they already had Amazon Locker as well.

I have a bunch of consonances with all this as I worked for a consultant at the (already long-since former) Sears catalog printing plant, R.R. Donnelly, then worked at Dean Witter Discover later on. I also worked in the Sears Tower at one point (not very high up, alas). Locally, our Sears store is still going, but the Kmart closed and is going to become a grocery.
posted by dhartung at 3:07 PM on April 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh 1981, Sears was your Victoria's Secret.
We had Monkey Ward's Dream Book. Was Sears' hotter?
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 8:08 PM on April 8, 2015


Did studios stop selling movies on LD before people stopped wanting them?

There's an old saying about Hollywood, "Scratch beneath the phony tinsel and you will find the real tinsel." I would add, scratch beneath the real tinsel and you will find iron-clad contractual obligations.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:35 PM on April 8, 2015


Laserdisc was already failing soundly on its own before the first DVD player was sold in the US, in 1997.

Your timeline's a little off. Laserdisc sales peaked in 1994, but even in 1997, laserdiscs still outsold the new DVDs 5.1 million to 2.1 million. The big laserdisc "fire sales" were in 1999, and the last new laserdisc title was BRINGING OUT THE DEAD in 2000.
posted by eschatfische at 8:35 PM on April 8, 2015


In 1996 my college roommate bought this monstrosity.

Wow. That also had a window air conditioner in it, right?
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:56 AM on April 9, 2015


In 1996 my college roommate bought this monstrosity.

You can probably blame me for that. Sorry.

When I worked on the IBM prototype LD player in our college CompSci lab, we had a research contract with IBM to connect their player to the PLATO IV terminal. It was supposed to be an upgraded random access image retrieval system for the PLATO terminal's compressed-air driven microfiche and Carousel slide projectors (no I am not kidding) that used rear-projection through a plasma screen display, so they could overlay computer graphics on photographic images.

Random access on the LD was easy to program. As I vaguely recall it, you just sent a command over a serial port, telling it what frame number to start and end (for video) or just a frame number for still image display. But the PLATO side was a nightmare. I loved the hardware, hey what geek wouldn't love a compressed air-driven computer. But it was difficult to program. So I told the lab director, hey we have this newfangled microcomputer called the Apple II, it even has a serial card, let's hook it up to that and see how it works. So I did. It worked great.

When IBM reps came to the lab for a progress report, they saw their product hooked up to an Apple and they were outraged. They terminated our research project immediately. IBM did not want their products connected to open hardware, this was only a few years after Amdahl shipped an IBM-compatible mainframe and IBM was locking down everything they could. So from that point forward, IBM basically decided that they wanted OEMs to ship the interactive LD as an integrated product with its own CPU, like that 286 monstrosity. You know, come to think of it, that was probably the point where IBM decided it needed to kill the Apple II. I suppose you can blame me for the IBM PC too.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:50 AM on April 9, 2015 [11 favorites]


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