Sears & Roebuck’s origins lie in railroad station agent Richard W. Sears’s fortuitous purchase of an unwanted shipment of pocket watches. The profit Sears realized by selling the timepieces to his colleagues inspired him to start a mail-order watch business in Minneapolis, in 1886. Soon afterward he met watch repairman Alvah C. Roebuck. In 1887 the pair relocated the R.W. Sears Watch Company to Chicago. Sears published the firm’s first mail-order catalog, offering jewelry, watches and diamonds for sale.
Following a brief sojourn in Iowa Sears returned to Chicago, forming with Roebuck a new mail-order watch and jewelry business. In 1893 they renamed the venture Sears, Roebuck & Company.
At that time residents of rural towns and farm communities had access to goods stocked by local general stores. The problem was, these retailers offered only a limited range of items, sold at negotiated prices. Sears challenged this paradigm by mass distribution of catalogs through the mail that presented a wide selection of products, at standardized prices.
By 1894, the Sears catalog boasted over 300 pages, topping 500 pages a decade later. In addition to staples, it introduced customers to newer things like sporting goods, dolls, bicycles, stoves, groceries and sewing machines—even automobiles! The company’s earnings rocketed in tandem with the number of items it stocked.
However, the recession spawned by the Panic of 1893 affected Sears & Roebuck. Two years later Roebuck left the company: his share was bought out and the company was reincorporated that same year. Now its catalog featured dry goods, consumer durables, drugs, hardware and furniture. In 1906 Sears’s successful initial public offering marked the first major IPO in American financial history. That year Sears opened its catalog plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower in the Windy City.
While the company experienced a cycle of financial ups and downs in succeeding decades, in 1933 Sears issued its first Christmas Catalog, which featured toys and gift items. So great were the Sears & Roebuck catalog’s acceptance among Americans that lived in rural areas that they came to be called “the Consumer’s Bible.”
However, the burgeoning urban population and its attendant financial power led Sears in the 1920s to open department stores in working-class neighborhoods. These outlets—whose free, off-street parking catered to automobile owners—stocked goods oriented toward durability and practicality that customers could select without the aid of clerks.
Sears built stores in urban areas until the 1950s, when it expanded into suburbs and malls in the 1960s and 1970s. The 110-story Sears Tower, completed in 1974, symbolized the firm’s strength. However, the retail landscape had begun to fragment, with companies like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart and Best Buy competing for segments of the business model that, for decades, had sustained Sears & Roebuck.
During the 1990s and the early 2000s the company began downsizing. It stopped distributing the general merchandise catalog and shed stores, subsidiaries and non-retail services. Even naming rights to the iconic Sears Tower were lost. (The building came to be officially called the “Willis Tower,” but Chicago residents of my acquaintance continued to refer to it by its original moniker!)
In 2004 Kmart Holdings acquired Sears Roebuck & Company, after Kmart completed its own bankruptcy. The combined company’s profits peaked in 2006 but four years later they were no longer profitable. After several years of declining sales, its parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018. At the beginning of 2019 Sears announced that it had won its bankruptcy auction, and would continue operating a maximum of 425 stores.
As I was growing up the Sears & Roebuck Catalog was always found in my family’s home. It was a resource for ideas, shopping research and just plain dreaming about things we’d like to have someday. I can’t remember the location of the Sears nearest our town but feel certain that going to it required a trip in the car. No doubt we possessed a Montgomery Ward (colloquially known as “Monkey Wards”) catalog as well but I my recollection is that it was firmly in second place.
As life took me around the country I could count on there being a Sears & Roebuck nearby. I was an occasional visitor rather than a true devotee, stopping by when I needed a Craftsman tool or, more rarely, when it was time to invest in a Whirlpool appliance.
I confess that, so tenuous was my allegiance to Sears that, beyond scanning the occasional newspaper article, I paid little attention to the firm’s acquisition by Kmart and its subsequent death spiral. The announcement that the local store was closing at the beginning of 2019 made me sit up a bit. But even this didn’t cause me to wax philosophical about the fate of a retailer that had always been around, albeit in the background. No, I took a trip there to score a “Going Out of Business” deal.
Before long our Sears looked pretty shoddy. By the time I got there the merchandise had been thoroughly pawed over. With fewer and fewer employees no one took the time to pick up items cast to the floor or to straighten up display tables. Fixtures were tagged for sale, just like clothing, jewelry and lawn mowers. The only signage consisted of colorful banners that specified the range of discounts available in each department.
I found it ironic that many of the customers in line before me were surly, given how they were availing themselves of purchases at cheaper prices than what they would have paid a few weeks earlier. One woman tried to bargain with the cashier for an even higher discount on the several pairs of shoes she wanted. Another lady complained under her breath about how long it was taking for the line we were in to be served by the folks staffing the registers. I couldn’t help likening what I saw to a kettle of vultures, circling carrion before they swooped down on it.
And what about me? I didn’t invest much time in surveying the commercial carnage strewn through the aisles. I zeroed in on my final Sears & Roebuck transition: the acquisition of a couple of pair of pants.