Before Amazon, there was Sears

Posted on by Guy Cookson

Sears Christmas catalogue, 1962. Photo by Todd Lappin

Before Amazon, there was Sears.

At its height, Sears was the largest employer in America. Their Chicago headquarters, the Sears Tower, stretched to 110 storeys and was the tallest building in the world on opening in 1974.

It is said that the Sears catalogue – known as the “Consumers’ Bible” – taught Americans how to shop.

The Sears story began in 1886, when Richard Warren Sears created a mail order catalogue for watches. Sears sold the business in 1889 for the equivalent of $2.7 million, and he intended to enjoy a comfortable retirement.

But restlessness drove Sears back to Chicago, where he launched a new mail order business in 1892, with Alvah C. Roebuck as his partner.

The Sears catalogue was revolutionary because rural Americans could, for the first time, look beyond the narrow range of goods on offer at the local general store.

They could order everything from bicycles and sewing machines to cast iron stoves and even cars across more than 500 pages. A whole new world opened up.

And as the population shifted from rural to urban during the early 20th Century, Sears followed, opening department stores across the country, where goods could be viewed and purchased in person.

Stores in suburban malls came next, as did a dizzying array of own-brand product lines and services for everything from insurance to dentistry.

Sears was the original everything store, a place where consumers could covet the latest technological marvels and fashion trends, while also stocking up on every day essentials.

Today things are looking very different for the 126 year-old brand.

The iconic Sears Tower has long since been sold off (it is called the Willis Tower now, after the insurance brokers).

Over the last decade hundreds of stores have been shuttered and more than 175,000 employees have lost their jobs.

Amazon is now the dominant retailer, but Sears began to struggle back in the 1990s, when discount retailers and big box stores lured shoppers away with lower prices.

This week the company filed for bankruptcy protection. If Sears has a future, it will be as a much smaller business, and as a case study in how once great brands can come crashing back down to earth.

Sears catalogue, 1958. Photo by Nesster

The former Sears Tower in Chicago. Photo by Tim Zink

The skyscraper formerly known as Sears Tower in Chicago. Photo by Mariano Mantel

A version of this article first appeared in the Lancashire Post, Lancaster Guardian and Blackpool Gazette.

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