Before there was Amazon.com, there was the Sears catalog. Founded as a mail-order watch company in the late 19th century, Sears, Roebuck and Company made its name with its swollen, jam-packed catalogs that advertised everything from underwear to entire house kits. Around the holidays, families across the country would circle items in its legendary “Wish Book.”
Sears' retail stores spread across the country and its sales stayed strong even during the Great Depression, as the company spawned now-famous brands like Kenmore, Craftsman and even Allstate Insurance.
But by the 1990s, Sears began to struggle as the company confronted competition from rival discount department stores like Kmart, Target, and Walmart, economic woes brought on by the Great Recession and the increasing dominance of e-commerce. After 132 years in business, former retail giant Sears filed for bankruptcy in October 2018, announcing it would close 142 unprofitable stores in the face of mounting competition from big-box stores and, of course, Amazon.com.
Sears started with watches.
The story of Sears begins in 1886, when a railroad station agent in Minneapolis, Minnesota named Richard Sears started selling gold watches at $14 apiece. The next year, he set up shop with watchmaker Alvah Roebuck on Dearborn and Randolph Streets in Chicago. With the help of investor Julius Rosenwald, who joined the firm in 1895, their mail-order watch business soon grew into a general mail-order firm that delighted customers with its thick catalogs packed full of everything from clothing to toys to household appliances.
'Cheapest Supply House on Earth
Early Sears catalogs billed themselves as the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth” or “the Book of Bargains,” and featured a mind-boggling array of products, including medical and veterinary supplies (pictured here), musical instruments, firearms, bicycles, sewing machines and baby buggies. By 1894, the page count of the catalog was 322 pages. Richard Sears, who wrote almost all of the catalog’s copy himself until his retirement in 1908, held to the motto “We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer,” making sure that Sears stayed competitive in terms of price and value.
Customer service was key to early growth.
Sears’ simple, warm and customer-service-centered approach helped it stand out among mail-order competitors like Montgomery Ward and Hammacher Schlemmer. When Sears first sold stock to the public in 1906, the company was worth some $40 million, with close to $50 million in annual sales and around 9,000 employees. That same year, it built a distribution complex in Chicago with some 3 million square feet of floor space.
Sears house kits become a big seller.
Among the catalog giant’s astounding range of offerings were house kits, which the company began marking in 1908. The kits came in 447 different designs, from the grand “Magnolia” ($5,140 to $5,972) to the more humble, but popular “Winona” ($744 to $1,998). Sears advertised the kits with the promise that “We will furnish all the material to build this [house design]. All the parts arrived (usually by train) precut and ready to assemble. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold between 70,000 to 75,000 homes.
Sears expanded by opening stores.
With the rise of the automobile, the mail-order boom in the United States slowed down, but Sears managed to stay successful by expanding consumer credit with its “No Money Down” policy and, in 1924, opening its first retail store in Chicago. More than 300 Sears stores would open across the country by 1929. After launching the Kenmore brand (appliances) and Craftsman brand (tools) during the 1920s, Sears even expanded into auto insurance, launching Allstate in 1931.
Profits didn't stop during the Great Depression.
Even in the depths of the Great Depression in 1931, Sears’ catalog, retail and factory profits totaled more than $12 million, or more than $201 million in 2018 dollars. That year marked the first year retail sales outstripped catalog sales. In 1932, the company opened its famous flagship store on State and Van Buren Streets in the Loop district of Chicago.
A business built on inexpensive essentials.
While traditional department stores (Marshall Field’s, Wanamaker’s) sold higher-end fashion, Sears had made its reputation selling less expensive but necessary items like socks, underwear, towels and bedding, which helped keep sales going even during the Depression. In fact, by the end of the 1930s, the number of Sears retail stores had nearly doubled, and in 1945 the company topped the $1 billion mark in sales for the first time.
Sears stores anchored shopping malls.
By the 1950s, Sears had opened more than 700 stores in the United States and had expanded into Mexico and Canada, where it joined forces with a Canadian mail-order company and became Simpson-Sears. As shopping malls became ubiquitous across the nation, Sears stores served as familiar anchors, along with fellow chains like J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward.
The 'Wish Book' topped 600 Pages.
Sears issued its first Christmas catalog in 1933, featuring such must-have items as a Mickey Mouse watch, a Lionel electric train set, a “Miss Pigtails” doll and live singing canaries. In the decades that followed, the catalog would be adorned with Christmas scenes, even as its pages swelled. By 1968, when it was officially renamed the “Wish Book,” the catalog boasted 225 pages of toys and 380 pages of gifts for adults, for a grand total of 605 pages.
Competitors emerge in the 1960s.
The 1960s brought more competition, in the form of new discount department store chains like Target, Walmart and Kmart. Annual sales rose to $10 billion by the early ‘70s, and the company moved its headquarters into what was then the world’s tallest building, the Sears Tower in Chicago, in 1973. But its competitors were gaining ground, and by 1991 Sears had lost its crown as the nation’s top-selling retailer to Walmart.
The end of the Sears catalog era.
In 1993, Sears announced it was closing its catalog division, bringing to an end a storied era of mail-order bargain-hunting and wish fulfillment that had begun nearly a century earlier. Sears Tower sold in 1994, and the following year, Amazon.com shipped its first book. In 1998, the Sears Christmas catalog went online for the first time at Wishbook.com, a year before the Sears.com website was launched. Despite a brief return to profitability after a merger with Kmart in 2005, Sears continued to struggle. By the time it filed for bankruptcy, Sears had lost more than $11 billion since 2011, even after trying to cut costs by closing hundreds of its retail stores across the country.