To those of us who fondly remember family members seated around the kitchen table, eagerly leafing through the newest edition of Sears’ Christmas Wish Book, the recent sad announcement that the once venerable company has had to declare bankruptcy came as a reminder that the retail industry is in a state of radical change.
Sears, Roebuck, & Company was founded at a time when the majority of Americans lived in rural surroundings, far from the major urban centers of commerce. Unwilling or unable to endure the often long and arduous journey to the city, most people had to settle for the limited choices offered by the local general store.
That began to change with the advent of the mail-order catalog. Rural and small-town customers finally had access to the same quality merchandise available to their big-city brethren, and, just as importantly, at published prices.
Richard Warren Sears was not the first to launch a mail-order business – Tiffany’s Blue Book made its debut in the U.S. in 1845, the Royal Welsh Warehouse catalogue (Wales) in 1861, and Montgomery Ward of Chicago in 1872 – but his endeavors would prove to be one of the most successful.
A former railroad station agent based in Minnesota, Sears had begun selling merchandise on the side as a way to make a little extra money. A shipment of watches to a local jeweler in 1886 indirectly led to Sears’ first foray into the mail-order business when the shipment was initially rejected. Sears, after negotiations with the manufacturer, was able to sell all the watches to his fellow station agents at a nice profit and ordered more for resale as the R.W. Sears Watch Company. By 1888, Sears had moved to Chicago, picked up a partner, watch repairman Alvah C. Roebuck, and issued his first mail-order catalog devoted to watches and jewelry.
By the time the partners incorporated 1893 as Sears, Roebuck, & Company, they’d begun expanding the selection of merchandise. Bicycles, firearms, sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, and clothing were just some of the items that appeared within the covers of the quickly burgeoning catalog, which grew from 322 pages in 1894 to 532 pages the year after.
In 1896 the company introduced the first Spring and Fall general catalogs, adding hand-cranked washing machines, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even groceries to the myriad offerings. And, anticipating the rewards programs offered by today’s retailers, a Customer Profit Sharing program was begun in 1904 whereby certificates earned by purchases could be redeemed for selected merchandise.
Most importantly (to collectors), 1933 witnessed the release of the first Christmas catalog, renamed the Christmas Wish Book in 1968. Filled with detailed photographs and descriptions of the popular toys (and other gift items) of the day, collectors have been snatching up copies in good condition. Recent online auction results have shown that many are willing to pay up to $200+ for Christmas Wish Books, and even more for pre-1968 specimens, such as the 1952 edition that recently fetched $380 after multiple bids. Regular “Big Book” catalogs, especially older, rarer copies enjoy almost as much action with a 1937 edition recently selling for $301 and an 1899 issue garnering almost $350.
Some, today, are referring to Sears as the “Amazon of its time” but the comparison does not do justice to the venerable company when one considers that in its heyday, Sears not only carried general merchandise of the kind found in large department stores, (and electronic stores, automotive stores, and toy stores), but it created the iconic Kenmore, DieHard, and Craftsman brands, established Allstate Insurance (1931) and the Discover credit card (1985), and sold – through its catalogs – entire houses, as ready-to-assemble kits!
Sears not only dominated the mail-order business, but it dominated the brick-and-mortar side of retail as well. Within fifty years of opening its first store in Chicago in 1925, Sears had spread to, not only to all corners of the U.S., but to Central and South America, Canada, and parts of Europe. In 1974, the 110-story Sears Tower – the world’s tallest building at the time – opened in Chicago.
So what went wrong? Business analysts have offered a number of theories, but it appears that the company failed on two fronts: it did not adequately respond to the threat posed by big-box retailers like Walmart and Home Depot, and its efforts to transition to an online presence (while declining catalog sales led to the demise of the “Big Book” in 1993) proved to be less than successful.
Someday soon, all that may be left of Sears will be collectibles like the catalogs, and memories.
Would you like to learn more about this quintessential American company? Check out the following resources.
The Big Store, by Donald R. Katz
Houses by Mail, by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl
Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A.: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew, by Gordon L. Weil
Allstate History & Timeline – Official site.
Diehard Legacy – Official site.
The History of the Discover Card (Chosen Payments) – Interesting article.
The History of Sears Predicts Almost Everything Amazon Is Doing (The Atlantic) – A look at Sears from the opposite direction.
Sears Archives – Official site is packed with information.
Who Killed Sears? Fifty Years on the Road to Ruin (Investopedia) – One of the more insightful articles on the subject.