The Retailer Who Taught America How to Shop
Sears’ lifetime embodied and spanned the rise of modern American shopping culture. At one time, the 130-year-old mass retailer was the largest in the U.S. and an essential part of many American consumers’ daily lives. From its humble beginnings, as a 19th Century mail-order catalog to its heyday in suburban malls and Main Street, it has long served as a symbol of American capitalism. However, when you come across a location today, it’s met with surprise, as they are a rare find.
Sears Early History
Richard W. Sears founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company in 1886 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The company began by offering watches by mail order. The following year, in 1887, he relocated his company to Chicago, where he added jewelry to his offerings and hired Alvah C. Roebuck to repair watches.
They sold this business in 1889 but later founded another company with Roebuck that would come to be known as Sears, Roebuck, and Company. By 1895, a wealthy clothing manufacturer, Julius Rosenwald, bought out Roebuck’s share and helped reorganize the mail-order business. Meanwhile, during this time, it was creating what would become the company’s famed catalog.
Sears grew exponentially by selling a wide selection of merchandise at low prices to villages and farms that did not have access to retail outlets. With the help of free rural delivery introduced in 1896 and parcel post introduced in 1913, Sears was able to send merchandise to even the most far-reaching customers.
Sears was succeeded by Rosenwald in 1909 to serve as company president. Then, in 1924, General Robert E. Wood joined the company and would serve as its guiding light over the next 30 years.
The Introduction of Retail Stores
It didn’t take Wood long to notice that the automobile made retail outlets in urban areas more accessible to customers living in rural locations or outlying suburbs. As a way to exploit this trend, the first retail store was opened in 1925 in Chicago. The number of locations would increase so rapidly by 1931 that physical sales topped mail-order sales.
During the economic boom that followed World War II, Sears flourished and was not challenged as the country’s largest retailer until the 1980s, when Kmart first surpassed its sales. Eventually, Walmart surpassed both retailers to become the largest American retailer and, by the end of the 20th century, the world’s largest retailer.
Sears began to diversify holdings in the 1980s by investing in financial services and real estate. However, by 1992, the company started selling off subsidiaries to focus on its lagging retail operations. Sears discontinued the general catalog in 1993 and, two years later, in 1995, spun off its most significant subsidiary: Allstate Corporation, which it founded in 1931.
Aside from selling hardware, household goods, and clothes, Sears also offered repair services for automobiles, electronics, appliances, and home cooling and heating systems.
By the early 2000s, it had bought retailer Lands’ End for roughly $2 billion and was bought out itself by Kmart in 2005 for $12 billion. At this point, both companies became subsidiaries of the Sears Holding Corporation and was America’s third-largest retailer.
Unfortunately, by 2010, Sears was no longer profitable. In fact, the company lost over $10 billion from 2011 to 2016, and by 2014, Sears’ total debt exceeded its market capitalization. Between 2010 and 2017, Sears declined from over 3,500 physical stores to just 695. The company spent 2014 and 2015 selling off assets on its balance sheet. Specifically, it sold its share in Sears Canada and Lands’ End. And by 2019, Sears had parted ways with both Craftsman Whirlpool/Kenmore and Diehard brands, which it had acquired over the years.
Sears filed for bankruptcy in 2018 but was saved by its majority shareholder in 2019. Still struggling, in 2021, Sears announced it would close even more stores, including the last location in New York City. In early 2022, it closed its remaining Sears Auto Centers nationwide.
Today, Sears is a shadow of its former self, as only 22 locations are spread among multiple states, including Florida, California, Alaska, Washington, and Texas. So, if you happen across an active store, stop in and enjoy the nostalgia of America’s greatest disgraced icon.
Richard W. Sears was born in Stewartville, Minnesota in 1863 and began his career as a railroad station agent. He retired from Sears in 1908 and died in 1914.