The Rise and Fall of the Sears Corporation and How They Set the Stage for Modern Retail

By Yelena Mandenberg Yelena Mandenberg has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on December 29, 2018

After 125 years in business, the Sears corporation filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in October of 2018. The long-time store once spanned across the entire US and Canada, after getting its start as a mail-order catalog. With technology changing businesses all over the globe, the last decade has seen hundreds of old businesses shut their doors. Sears is just one of the many large companies that found themselves unable to compete to a modern consumer base.

Here’s a little memorial for Sears, Roebuck and Company, affectionately known as Sears.

1879 – Richard Warren Sears, a railroad worker, accidentally stumbled on a mistake shipment of watches. Buying the boxes at a really low price, Sears sold them at an incredibly high markup to the other station workers.

In 1886, Sears decides to start a mail-order catalog to sell them for a profit. The “R.W. Sears Watch Company” is born. Right away, he meets his future business partner and associate, Alvah C. Roebuck, a watch repairman. The two immediately start working together and publish a new catalog with watches, jewelry, and diamonds.

And after being mildly successful for a few years, Sears and Roebuck sold the business for $100,000 (equivalent to today’s 2.5 million). Sears intended to go back to Iowa and become a farmer. Luckily… that idea didn’t last because Sears was back in Chicago with his old associates by 1892, creating a full-on catalog that America had never seen before.

For the late 19th century, what Sears essentially created was something brand new. Previously, most people across rural America bought things at their local general stores. The general stores couldn’t stay in stock all the time. Plus, prices were always negotiable, so they were always changing. The same way that internet is killing brick and mortar stores now because of the selection and price point, Sears was able to give the rural population something they never had before: a ton of choices at fair, solid, prices.

1894 – By now the Sears catalog is over 300-pages and includes automobiles, bicycles, sewing machines, farm equipment, home goods, toys, and more. Yearly sales at this time ran around $400,000 (about 10 million by today’s standards).

By 1906, despite internal changes in the company, Sears took his retailer public with an incredibly successful IPO, becoming the first retail company to trade publicly. They became a part of the Dow Jones, representing a whole new era of expansion.

Also in 1906, Sears planted his company’s headquarters in Chicago’s West Side, in what would become known as the Sears Tower.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Sears and Roebuck building circa 1922.

Eventually, Sears stepped down due to old age and declining health, passing his company along to his partners and the board of trustees. After suffering badly in the 1922 depression, the company managed to regain it’s foothold as a retail leader after the economy stabilized.

The Sears corporation invented the Christmas catalog game, releasing the “Sears Wishbook” (sound familiar?) in 1933, helping to commercialize the holiday more than ever. It seems silly, but this large, Holiday-themed catalog really set the stage for holiday retail around the globe for the modern era.

Even now, it’s known as “the Consumer’s bible.” Sears was the first to tap into the rural world and use their language, providing the South and Midwest with cheap alternatives to the large fancy department stores.

Continuing to open retail stores all throughout the 1900s, Sears completed the tower in 1974, when the Sears Tower suddenly became the country’s largest building, actually stealing the title from New York’s WTC towers.

By this point, the Sears corporation had acquired many companies and entities throughout the US. In the 1990s, with the internet starting to change the way consumers find products, Sears had to begin divesting itself from their non-retail entities. The catalog stopped coming out in 1993. Since then, Sears began losing profits fast. Sears tried to save themselves in 2003 by opening up new stores called “Sears Grand,” that would help attract new buyers. Unfortunately, the company lost profitability, had to sell off most of their holdings, and slowly began to descend towards the path of bankruptcy.

The Sears corporation, along with Toys R Us, Radio Shack, Blockbuster, Borders, and many others became obsolete when the internet came around. But that’s what’s supposed to happen, it’s the lovely circle of capitalism. It’s the legacy that counts though, and Sears revolutionized retail at the beginning of the 20th century.

Thanks to the Sears corporation and their ability to think outside the box, companies had to keep up and offer just as many options, widening the market throughout the decades. Now, there are hundreds of publicly traded retail companies, where once Sears was the only one. By figuring out a profitable formula and trading on the stock market, Sears singlehandedly turned retail into the serious, multi-trillion dollar industry we know now.

By Yelena Mandenberg Yelena Mandenberg has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Yelena Mandenberg is the Ideas Editor at Grit Daily with a passion for news of all sorts. Finishing Brooklyn College with a degree in Print Media Journalism as the industry died out, she began working as a freelancer.After spending some time working in the retail industry, Yelena started BK Riot Writing, a marketing company that caters to small and local businesses, creating content that helps them compete. From her South Brooklyn apartment where she lives with her cat & tortoise, Yelena is always seeking something new and interesting to cover.

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