Bob Bestler

Before there was eBay and Amazon, there was the Sears catalog

Can retail be rescued? Why so many U.S. stores are closing

Stores that have been staples of the American shopping tradition for decades are closing in large numbers. Take a closer look at the reasons why it’s so hard for retailers to stay open.
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Stores that have been staples of the American shopping tradition for decades are closing in large numbers. Take a closer look at the reasons why it’s so hard for retailers to stay open.

Before there was Amazon, before there was Ebay, before there was Facebook — heck, before “internet” was a word — there was the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog.

For more than a century, the Sears catalog, first published in 1888 as a printed mailer to sell watches and jewelry, brought the whole world into our homes in the same way the world wide web does now.

The mailer was so successful that within six years it had become a 322-page catalog offering such things as sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods and autos. Within a few years, the Sears catalog would include virtually every item one could imagine. It might well have matched Amazon’s current-day boast that it stocks “one of everything.”

In fact, in a promotion sometime around 1900, Sears, Roebuck called itself “the cheapest supply house on earth. … Our trade reaches around the world.” Sounds a bit like Amazon, hey?

I like to think I grew up with Sears and its giant brick building that occupied an entire block on Lake Street near our home. I was about six or seven at the time and loved our shopping trips there because of the huge collection of toys for sale.

Its wish book, published in time for Christmas and filled with every toy imaginable, offered more hours of fun than a stack of Mickey Mouse comic books.

For those who lived in rural small towns, as my grandfather did, the Sears catalog offered a world far beyond the local general store and dry goods retailer.

There was always a Sears catalog nearby, even in my grandfather’s old outhouse where a Sears catalog existed for reading and, I was told, for other purposes.

Sears got out of the auto business fairly quickly, but its home-kit business, begun in 1908, became a huge success.

Buyers could choose from 447 designs, from the $744 “Winona” to the much larger $5,972 “Magnolia,” safe in the promise that “we will furnish all the material to build” the selected house.

Sears used to have homes in their catalogs from 1908 and 1940. Two "Sears" homes in Charlotte are in the Elizabeth neighborhood.

The company sold between 70,000 and 75,000 home kits between 1908 and 1940, when the item was discontinued.

When we were a young family, we often turned first to Sears when in need of a tool or an appliance, all of which came highly recommended. I still have a couple of Craftsmen tools, but our Kenmore washer is long gone.

Nowadays, we turn to Lowe’s and Home Depot — and there’s just two of the reasons Sears had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October. Competition from Walmart and Amazon are two others.

Bloomberg, noting that the retailer had lost some $11 billion since 2011, laid a part of the blame on Sears: “It lost its footing in the 1980s with expansions into financial products such as banking, mortgages, insurance and credit cards.”

By 1990, Walmart had replaced Sears as the world’s biggest retailer; in 1993, it closed its catalog division; and in 1994, it sold Sears Tower in Chicago, at the time the world’s tallest.

It’s not quite the end of this American icon. Sadly, though, Sears is clearly on life support as it struggles to stay afloat. Wishing you luck, old friend.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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