SEARS – The Downfall

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.

American love it or leave it hoodie

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.

Growth and Expansion

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

Sears Roebuck Logo

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.

Video: Vintage SEARS TV Commercial – 1984

Competition and Buyout

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.

Classic Car Hats

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 gif

Sears Today

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.

Sears Closing

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.

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18 responses to “SEARS – The Downfall”

  1. Tim Lyle Avatar
    Tim Lyle

    Great article.

  2. Sue Avatar

    Worked there for 26 years, enjoyed the customers and fellow employees. Retired 6 months before they closed our store.

    1. Eric James Hartman Avatar

      Enjoy your retirement!

      1. Ceolia Badeaux Avatar
        Ceolia Badeaux

        We. Had not that center by Joe’s boots Morgan city.We get categol spend hours looking.only time we got along.

  3. […] diversification allowed the company to compete with national department store chains like Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears, Roebuck, and Co. With this, JC Penney began to […]

  4. Barbara A. Hausman Avatar
    Barbara A. Hausman

    My mom and dad bought kenmore appliances for years and me and my husband, we shopped also, and tools was my husband big thing , I have old catalogs, love looking through them, now it’s just memories

  5. Kathy Avatar

    It was a shame to see Sears closed. That company represented the best of America had to offer Americans customers. Quality, honesty and durability was its characteristic that guided company.

  6. Glenn mcmanus Avatar
    Glenn mcmanus

    Miss the stores greatly.snd remember the wish books were recycled in many an out house across america

  7. rosella Avatar

    When my children where growing up, they waited for the Sears toy catalog to be delivered and spent many hours choosing the gifts they hoped Santa would bring them.

  8. […] has been struggling to turn a profit in recent years, and this has made it difficult to invest in new stores or make other […]

  9. […] industry underwent significant changes. The rise of online shopping and the increasing dominance of big-box retailers made it difficult for the company to compete. In an effort to adapt to these changing market […]

  10. […] Then, the company relaunched its Woolworth line as a strictly online company, though some Woolworth stores were still in […]

  11. David Wisbrock Avatar
    David Wisbrock

    Started working for Sears in 1970 enjoyed an awesome life at Sears until 2005 when Eddy took over. In 2006 I said goodbye to Sears, cashed in my stock and walked away as the end of Sears had begun.

  12. Ross Willson Avatar
    Ross Willson

    Sears was destroyed by Eddie Lampert an IMO “failed Hedge Fund Manager with no real world “retail” experience. He and his group purchased K-Mart while it was in Bankruptcy, then by leveraging funds bought controlling interest in Sears. I worked at Sears in Hawaii, and the instant the transfer was complete, the slow death of America’s Great Retailer began. Lampert actually came to investigate operations in the Hawaii stores, we had the highest rate of sales in maintenance agreements the simple answer was, for us in Hawaii, everyone was “family”. I worked in the small appliance department, and I remember actually going to a customer’s home, having the tech along, he would deliver and install the microwave, and I would teach them how to use it, demonstrating features of that particular Model.
    Lampert destroyed that, did nothing more than make the “agreements” a “cash cow” raising pricing on the coverage beyond an acceptable ROI, to Lampert customers were to be controlled/run like the stocks in the financial Markets…

  13. Judy Metzroth Avatar
    Judy Metzroth

    I loved SEARS and remember my Mom buying our school clothes through the catalog.It was so exciting waiting for that package to come in the mail. The end of a great era !!! So sorry to see it go.

    1. Mary Avatar

      A Sears house was built in my hometown. Hope it is still there!

  14. David Shilling Avatar
    David Shilling

    Thanks for nothing Eddie!

  15. […] In the 1970’s, due to a series of poor business decisions, the great Montgomery Ward began to struggle. By 1985 it closed it’s mail-order business permanently. Yes, we could bore you with all the financial details but let’s save that for another time. In the late 90’s, companies like Target and Walmart began to become more and more of a threat and Montgomery Ward could not withstand the pressure. […]

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