I was saddened this week to hear the Sears has filed Chapter 11. The company has appeared in so many of my books, it feels like I’m losing one of my characters.
Among my favorite resources is a Sears Catalogue dated 1894. I use it to research fashion, furnishings, vehicles and just about everything else a household would have needed back in those early days. Prices are clearly marked, along with full descriptions—a writer’s dream.
The company was originally started in 1886 by Richard W. Sears in Minnesota to sell watches. The idea came to him while working as a railroad agent. A jeweler received a large shipment of watches, which were unwanted. Sears purchased them and sold them to the railroad agents, making a handsome profit.
A year later, he moved to Chicago and hired Alvah C. Roebuck to repair watches. Together they established a mail order watch catalogue, which proved to be a great success.
However, Sears was a restless type and always looking to improve. He didn’t have to look far. At the time, farmers living in rural areas had to purchase products from the local general store on credit and at high prices. Shopkeepers would decide how much to charge by estimating a customer’s credit-worthiness. Choice of products was also extremely limited.
Sears decided to take advantage of this by offering a catalogue under the name Sears, Roebuck & Company. His timing was perfect: The government’s Rural Free Delivery Act opened delivery routes in rural areas, allowing for better distribution of the catalogue.
The catalogue featured a wide selection of products at clearly marked prices. Consumers were delighted to find prices consistent and not have to haggle. They were also drawn to the easy-to-read, warm, friendly language used to describe goods, and the catalogue proved an instant success.
By 1895, the catalogue had grown to 532 pages and featured such items as sewing machines, sporting equipment, household furnishings, tombstones and barber chairs. It was even possible to purchase an entire house from Sears, delivered by train. In 1905, automobiles were added to the catalogue. It even sold a “Stradivarius model violin” for $6.10
Sears began opening retail stores in 1925 and, for years, was the largest retailer in the United States.
Many reasons have been cited for the company’s demise. Critics claim Sears made many mistakes and couldn’t keep up with the likes of Walmart and Amazon.
This might be true, but Sears taught America how to shop and for that reason, its legacy will no doubt remain intact.
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