How does a retail company like SEARS, once the largest in the world and still in business for nearly 130 years, swiftly fade into oblivion? Sears is nearly gone. How could you mess up a successful time-proven brand like Sears? Perhaps Sears’ CEO, Eddie Lampert, can explain because most of us cannot. Sears has not only been a department store chain , but an institution baby boomers fondly remember. Few of us can smell popcorn popping or hear Christmas music that we don’t think of Sears.
It can be safely said most of us are discouraged by what has happened to what was once the world’s largest retailer. I’m not in the retail business nor am I qualified to comment. However, I will offer my armchair opinion anyway. To understand the Sears journey, one must look back nearly 130 years to the beginning. Richard W. Sears was a man with vision who took risks. He saw opportunity where others did not. He understood what worked and—what didn’t. He knew due diligence was what it took to make it in the world. He never faltered.
He founded SEARS.
In the 1880s, Richard Sears was a station agent with the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway. He did whatever it took to earn a living and engaged in a lot of things on the side including peddling jewelry and other dry goods, which would prove profitable in time. He founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company and moved to Chicago in 1887 from his native Minneapolis. It was in Chicago he became acquainted with watchmaker Alvah C. Roebuck. They developed a solid business relationship and founded Sears-Roebuck & Company in 1893. Little by little, they amassed investors and the company grew.
The Sears-Roebuck partnership blossomed beyond anyone’s imagination. Sears’ first initial stock offering happened in 1906 and the company grew like wildfire. Sears cut its teeth in the mail order business, which made it easy for people, especially farmers, to get what they needed via mail order. Those who lived in remote parts of the country could order items, including homes and automobiles, from the catalog and have what they needed in a matter of days. Shoppers didn’t even have to go to a Sears store. Sears was a precursor to what Amazon is today—the ease of ordering from your telephone and having it arrive in days.
There wasn’t anything Sears didn’t have as the 20th century unfolded. You could order a house from Sears or remodel your bathroom or buy a house full of furniture. By the 1920s, Sears’ success was phenomenal and sales were brisk. The only way was up even during the Great Depression in the 1930s and turbulent war years spanning the 1940s. By the time World War II ended in 1945, veterans came home from the Pacific and Europe ready to go to marriage and housekeeping which meant a huge cash windfall for Sears-Roebuck. Shoppers could go to Sears or fan the pages of a catalog and order just about anything under the sun.
As baby boomers came of age years later, it only got better. By the 1960s, Sears’ slogan was “Sears Has Everything…” and it did. You could shop for clothes and shoes while your car was getting a tune-up or an engine replacement in the automotive center. You couldn’t help but notice complete bathrooms, kitchens, and living room furniture while you were wandering through Sears searching for a pair of shoes. For anyone with distractibility issues, Sears was a challenge because there was so much to choose from all over the store. Put me in the tool or home improvement department and I become hopeless.
And Christmastime? The Wish Book and a trip to Sears meant being able to look at toys, Christmas decorations, and just about anything else your imagination could dream up. The Wish Book often arrived just after school started in September just to whet your appetite for the holidays.
With the rich smell of woodsmoke in the autumn and journeying up the street in search of Halloween candy meant the holidays, and the thrill of Sears, were just around the corner. I still get a rush of goosebumps thinking about it.
However, goosebumps and our memories aren’t going to save Sears. The Sears story in recent decades has been a succession of failed business decisions and stiff competition from mail order giants like Amazon. It is important to understand Amazon isn’t what is killing Sears. Poor management decisions within the Sears organization are.
And now, it’s just too little too late.
Sears will undoubtedly join the ranks of dozens of other retailers who failed to compete that are gone in 2021. The May Company, Zayre, Montgomery-Ward, Grants, Venture, Robinsons, The Broadway, Gottschalks, Toys R Us, Mervyn’s, Robert Hall, Kinney Shoes, Best Products, Woolco, Service Merchandise, Western Auto, and a host of others are gone now. Plenty of local and reginal retailers are gone too.
My point is not only have these chains been a part of our lives for decades, they’ve been places of business we felt we could count on. The downfall of Sears is but the latest in a series of business losses that have made it necessary for boomers to find suitable replacements. When it comes to Sears-Roebuck, those are mighty big shoes to fill.