Q: Hi Greg. I have always been a dedicated Sears and Kmart Auto Center guy as me and my family would go to Sears, get the car serviced and then shop the entire store while the mechanics worked on the car. It is sad to see so many Sears and Kmart stores closing, and I know youve mentioned Sears & Roebuck before in your columns. Whats happened? Thanks.
Bill M., Oregon

A: Bill, Id be glad to. First and foremost, I agree it is a shame that the Sears and Kmart stores and auto centers have been closing across the country. Every time a big Sears store closes, we usually lose an auto center. Personally, Ive been a big Sears and Kmart fan all my life, which Ill explain later. Overall, 188 Sears Auto Centers have closed since 2008 and Kmart only has seven left. Thanks to an article on Seeking Alpha investment site, it looks like there are currently 662 Sears Auto Centers still operating.

To better answer your question about the Kmart Auto Centers, I had the opportunity to interview Roger Penske this past August during the running of the ABC Supply IndyCar 500-mile race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. At one time, Penske operated 562 Auto Centers, which he closed when the Kmart/Penske Auto Centers deal fell through in 2002 after a seven year effort. This Penske Auto Center Company was a separate part of Penske operations back then and had nothing to do with todays current Penske Auto Group conglomerate listed on the NY Stock Exchange ticker PAG. Known as The Captain around the IndyCar circuit, Roger Penske this year celebrates 50 years of Penske Racing success and our congrats to him.

When asked about the difficulties he encountered during the Kmart/Penske auto center effort, Penske laid it right on the line as Kmart was in the middle of bankruptcy realignment.

Said Penske, With the Kmart/Penske Auto Centers, we underestimated the effect of the bankruptcy Kmart was involved in at the time. Also, the loss of their traditional customer base and then moving the auto parts business around in the store I think hurt us. Being in the retail auto business with our Penske Auto Centers elsewhere, we found that the average repair order was around $200. But at Kmart stores it was about $65. So this meant we couldnt invest in the equipment or the people we needed to make it successful. So, some of it had to do with our partner being in trouble and also that we underestimated what we could do to turn that business around. But we lived up to all our vendor obligations (after closing the auto centers).

This quote explains the difficulties Kmart experienced back then and could be a harbinger of what Sears is now experiencing, ie. low overall per store sales (not necessarily the auto centers) and big quarterly losses. I for one still shop at Sears and Kmart, and although being a car lover to the 10th degree, I fear the worst is yet to come for this once blue chip Sears Holdings Company. I truly hope I am wrong.

My memories of Sears and Kmart are fond. Back in 1957, when my father moved us to Vineland, New Jersey, we would go to Sears at least once a week. This Sears & Roebuck had a nice auto center, and as you mention, my dad would leave the car there to get its oil change or tires or a battery. Meanwhile, my brother and I would anticipate a hot dog and large Hires Root Beer from the stand in the middle of the store.

Back then, Sears had something for everyone, especially us young ones. From 1/24 plastic cars to JC Whitney bicycles to Ted Williams signature baseball equipment, Sears was the place to be. While my brother and I checked the toy displays, my mom would be checking the ladies department while dad would go back and forth from the store to the auto center checking on our 1955 Plymouth Savoy. Sears even had its own car back in 1952-1953, a rebadged Henry-J called the Allstate.

A decade later as a Sears & Roebuck paint department employee at the same store, I would make several purchases on Sears & Roebuck credit. I bought two sets of Hedman Headers, a Sun tachometer and an AFB 4-barrel carb all offered for sale in 1968-1969 at my hometown Sears. That was the first ever credit I received and I remember my credit card wasnt plastic, it was heavy paper.

Moving into the 1980s, Kmart was now big, too. Just as you and my dad did, I had my car serviced while my young and growing family would enjoy Little Caesars Pizza-Pizza, still available today at many Kmarts. As the years progressed, Sears and Kmart merged to where today you can buy just about any Sears product at a Kmart store. I really hope someone or some company can save Sears and Kmart as the other major retailers of the day, like Montgomery Ward, are long gone. Montgomery Ward also had nice auto centers and I remember getting an aftermarket air conditioner put on my new 1976 Gremlin X there.

I hope this answered your question about the Sears auto centers, which actually dont play as major as role in overall profits or losses for Sears Holdings as one might expect. Sears has some major concerns ala non-rented real estate, public perception, online competition and so on.

But when it comes to car care, Sears still offers great service, as do the other independent auto centers. I am a firm believer there will always be a place for the independent auto centers and smaller garages, regardless of how technical the new cars become as long as the service is good and priced accordingly.

Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader input on collector cars, auto nostalgia or old-time racing at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at greg@gregzyla.com.