History

A Look Back At Sears Department Store: How The Iconic American Brand Changed Retail History

It may be hard for some to imagine that Sears was once the largest and most successful retailer in the world. The Sears catalog helped shape consumerism of the 20th century forever changing the way Americans shopped. Long before Amazon became the one-stop-shop for practically everything, there was the Sears catalog.

For the first time, Americans could easily access anything they could have ever imagined. The catalogs were an inspiration for the ideal American way of life and promoted the satisfaction of consumerism. The advertising helped influence the fashion and trends of the times, and the books were so large that many joked about using them as toilet paper. The rest is history.

Humble Beginnings: Watches and Jewelry

It all started in 1886 when Richard Warren Sears, started the Sears Watch Company and a year later hired watchmaker Alvah Curtis Roebuck as a repairman. The Sears Roebuck catalog business was founded in 1888 and sold only watches and jewelry by mail order.

By 1893, Sears Roebuck & Company moved to Chicago as the business expanded. They started to increase and diversify their product offerings, a year later in 1894 the catalog had grown to 322 pages. By 1895 the catalog had increased to 535 pages.

Expansion into New Territory

At this time, they were selling hundreds of different items, including sewing machines, wagons, china, musical instruments, bicycles, and even automobiles, all ordered by mail.

Between 1880 and 1900 the majority of Americans were living on farms or in small towns. In 1896, the US postal service offered free rural delivery and Sears was willing to deliver to even the most isolated customers.

Free Delivery

By 1897 Sears had created the very first general merchandise catalog which included everything from clothing, furniture to guns and cars. Since shipping the catalog was free of charge this allowed saturation throughout the United States, gaining massive exposure for the brand.

In 1900, when the American population was 76 million, Sears used his genius for advertising and promotion to put a catalog in the hands of 20 million U.S citizens. The catalog made it easier for those living in cities, as they could order and buy goods without actually having to go into a store.

Order Your American Dream Home Today

You could buy your house from Sears between 1908 – 1940. Customers could pick a home from dozens of models, send a check and, a few weeks later, all the house parts arrived by rail.

The delivery included 10,000 pieces of framing lumber, 20,000 cedar shakes, screws, nails, paint and all the other parts needed to build a house. This even included the doors, knobs, and the drawer pulls for the kitchen cabinets.

Extremely Durable for a Great Price

Mass-produced materials lowered manufacturing costs; therefore savings were passed onto the customer, allowing many Americans the ability to purchase homes that were never able to before.

Customers could build the house themselves or hire a carpenter to ease the process. During this period between 70,000-75,00 homes were purchased. Believe it or not, many of these houses are still standing today, located all over the U.S.

Retail Stores

Although Sears was a thriving mail order business long before their storefronts even existed, the whole face of the country was changing.

With cars and modern roads, Sears rural customers were no longer limited to shopping by catalog. In 1925, Sears opened its first retail store in Chicago. It was adjacent to the warehouse used for its catalog orders. This department store offered everything including kitchen sinks!

Consumerism on the Rise

By 1907, Sears and Roebuck were selling the then equivalent of $1.3 billion of merchandise to American families every year.

By the end of 1927, there were already 27 stores in operation. The orders poured in from everywhere — 105,000 a day at one point. Sears was soon becoming a major threat to the local mom and pop shops in the area, sound familiar Amazon?

Strong Throughout the Depression

Despite the Depression, Sears continued to open stores throughout the 1930s. When war broke out in 1941, more than 600 stores were operating.

World War II halted Sears retail expansion, however at the end of the war when American buying was on the rise, the company continued to grow with more store openings and sales reaching over $1 billion.

Everything Including the Kitchen Sink!

Sears was the one place you could find everything all under one roof. This concept was very successful at the time because a family could run all of their errands in a day’s work.

Every department had a specialty. These included clothing, accessories, jewelry, home appliances, lawn and garden supplies, paint, sporting goods toys, and electronics to name a few.

Show Me the Stainless Steel

Sears expanded into durable stainless steel and enamel cookware. The company would offer in-store demos to help promote the items.

In this department, you could buy everything you needed for your kitchen, including dishes, cooking utensils, silverware, and even your stove and oven!

Transitioning to Suburban Life

In the 1950s and 1960s, Sears began to shift its focus from urban to suburban markets. The Sears name soon became synonymous with the suburban shopping experience.

Their large department stores anchored shopping malls all over the country, and Sears catered to suburban motorists by expanding their automotive services.

Auto Insurance by Mail Order

Another innovative move from Sears was the creation of Allstate Insurance. Sears formed in 1931 and named after the Sears brand of automobile tires. This division, founded by the President and Board Chairman, General Robert E. Wood, was created with the intention to sell auto insurance company directly to consumers through the Sears catalog.

Allstate offered low rates on auto insurance primarily through the mail but then expanded to instore. This is what helped make Sears a convenient one-stop shop for every necessity.

They Sold Tombstones and Live Baby Chicks

At some point in history, Sears sold everything, and when we say everything, we mean it! It wasn’t uncommon for Americans to order livestock, bear fur coats, and tombstones. As late as 1947, one could even place an order for baby chicks!

Even a moto buggy was available to purchase, able to travel up to 25 mph, this would cost about $10,000 in today’s dollars. Rifles were for sale through the catalog until the 1970s.

The Trend Setter

The catalog helped shaped the fashion trends of the time; it was the best way to advertise fashion trends to the masses, and it was accessible to all by mail.

For men, women, and children all the newest most stylish apparel was available. Sears created several house apparel brands such as Canyon River Blues, Laura Scott, Simply Styled, and Metaphor brands.

Trusted in Fashion

Women were able to stay up to date with the ever-changing wardrobe styles of the time and looked forward to receiving the catalogs so they could check out the newest looks.

Catalog ordering made shopping easy for men, who were not as interested in shopping for clothing. When they did shop in the stores, the practical merchandising made it convenient for them to find what they needed.

Wish Book

In 1933 Sears issued the first Christmas catalog also known as the Sears Wish Book. The catalog contained toys and other holiday gifting merchandise.

Items featured in the first catalog included the popular Miss Pigtails doll, Lionel electric train sets, a Mickey Mouse watch, boxes of chocolate and even live singing canaries.

Toys Galore

The catalog, which arrived in mailboxes in late August or early September, soon became a holiday tradition with warm, colorful Christmas scenes decorating the cover.

The Wish Book or Big Book or Dream Book, as the catalog was variously called, could run a staggering 1,500 pages and offer more than 100,000 items.

Charge It to My Discover Card

Sears was a pioneer in consumer credit when it launched its own Sears Roebuck charge accounts in 1911, years before the credit card industry was born.

Many are unaware that Discover card was created by Sears company in 1985. This card was the first to offer cash rewards to customers based on how much the credit card was used.

Most Successful Retailer in the US

The Discover credit card was created when Sears was the largest and most successful retailer in the United States. Sears was the first retail store to make consumer credit readily available and was designed as an effort to offer credit to catalog shoppers.

At the time, the card was only used only to buy merchandise at Sears, as the retailer accepted no other form of credit.

The Place to Buy All the Newest Technology

Sears gave the masses access to the first at home electric calculator in 1972 which today would sell for $590!

When the VCR was first available to the public, Sears was one of the first retailers offering the new technology at what would be around $2,800 in today’s dollars.

Before the Apple Store

Sears was also one of the first retailers to offer the cellular phone in 1991. Back then, it weighed almost 8 lbs and cost more than $1,500 in today’s dollars!

Here you could find the newest camcorders, Nintendo gaming systems, and Apple Macintosh computers in the 1980s.

Expansion into Every Mall In America

Shopping malls were expanding to every part of the U.S and so was Sears. It was rare to see a mall without Sears because this was the department store that contained everything for the home and family.

Spending time at shopping malls soon became a past time for the whole family all over the country.

Americans Love to Shop

Sears created a desire for shopping. They knew what every American was looking to purchase and was able to provide it. The company understood American’s were seeking the best products for the best prices.

Price cuts were frequent at Sears which dove masses of people into the store. Throughout retail history, Sears has been synonymous with convenience, quality, and value.

Fun For the Family

While moms were choosing Kenmore items for the home and dads were shopping for new Craftsman tools…

Sears allowed children to stay occupied with their own interests throughout the department store. There was always something to look at (and buy) at Sears!

Kid Friendly

Sears was a joy for all kids in the 20th century. Most looked forward to the Christmas Catalog, the Wish Book every year.

But it was even more enjoyable to play with the toys in person. The toy departments were so large, children could stay entertained for hours.

Household Appliances Branded by Sears

In 1913 Sears launched the Kenmore brand first printing the name on sewing machines. The company introduced Kenmore washing machines by 1927 and the first Kenmore vacuum cleaner in 1932.

Throughout the 1970s, Sears continued to expand its Kenmore brand to household appliances including refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners.

Kenmore Top Selling Appliance

Sears eventually came to dominate the home appliance market in the early 20th century. Easy access to these labor-saving devices changed the lives of families across America.

By 1936, the company had sold 1 million Kenmore laundry machines. At one point, over half of the homes in the United States had Kenmore appliances.

Craftsman Tools

Sears was the go-to place for all household needs. Sears was one of the first department stores not only to cater to women but also men by selling tools and hardware.

In 1927 Sears launched the craftsman brand which includes hardware tools, power tools, and land and garden equipment. The brand’s early customers were mostly farmers.

The Standard of Quality

Craftsman products had an unlimited lifetime warranty which was unheard of at the time, as it implied unsurpassed quality.

The Craftsman brand was soon known as the most trusted tool brand.
At one point in history, no receipt was required for its lifetime warranty. However, upon the abuse of the policy, Sears reduced the warranty to 25 years.

Automobile Fail

Sears made at least two attempts at selling automobiles, either through its famous mail-order catalog or via its many brick-and-mortar stores.

However, both ultimately failed due to a poor understanding of the automobile business.

Allstate Car

Starting in December 1951, select Sears stores and the Sears catalog began to sell the Allstate as a 1952 model, available in both four-cylinder and six-cylinder models

Yet by mid-1953, after selling less than 2,500 cars, Sears discontinued the program. It was concluded that Americans didn’t like the idea of buying an automobile through a department store or by mail order.

Automobile Industry Success

They did, however, master the automobile industry in the areas of tires, auto parts, and eventually car insurance all sold under the Allstate brand.

They also formed Sears Rent-a-Car, a car and truck rental chain in the mid-1970s as a joint venture with Budget Car rental.

America’s Best Selling Car Battery

It took nine years of intense research and more than one million dollars for Sears to develop the DieHard Battery in 1967. Today it is still America’s most innovative automotive battery — tested, proven and guaranteed to deliver across any circumstance.

Their automotive service department was a popular feature. You could get your car worked on while you were shopping in the store. Kill to birds with one stone!

Sears Impact on the Economy

Throughout the 20th century, Sears had a positive impact on the economy. The company contributed to creating jobs throughout history in the United States.

Sears allowed brands to thrive in their catalogs and retail stores. This resulted in large department stores, contributing to even more productivity. And most importantly, Sears created a desire for consumers to purchase and gave Americans the option to do this from the comfort of their home or in an unforgettable store environment.

Plenty of Options

By the turn of the century, more products were available and affordable to consumers than ever before. Shopping was an exciting experience for the consumer with endless wants and desires under one roof. Although Sears had dominated the mail business and their retail stores were a success, there were many other players in the field

A new emergence of retail department stores were opening all over America. The saturation of retail options allowed for every consumer to be reached. Some of the most popular retailers at the time included J.C. Penney, Woolworths, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus.

J.C. Penney

J.C. Penney was founded in 1902 by James Cash Penney. The store was originally named The Golden Rule; to treat others as we would like to be treated. He strongly believed that stores should be run with honesty and respect for the customer.

In 1913, the company was incorporated under the new name, J. C. Penney Company, with William Henry McManus as a co-founder. In 1914, the headquarters were moved to New York City to simplify buying, financing, and transportation of goods

Penney’s Rapid Growth and Expansion

The company opened its 500th store in 1924 and its 1,000th store by 1928. By 1941, J. C. Penney operated 1,600 stores in 48 states. In 1956, they began advertising nationally and in the 60’s they expanded beyond offering just dry goods.

The company debuted its first full-line, shopping center department store in 1961. These stores expanded the lines of merchandise and services to appliances, sporting goods, garden merchandise, restaurants, beauty salons, portrait studios, auto parts, and auto centers. In 1963, J. C. Penney followed Sears’ strategy and launched its first catalog.

F.W. Woolworth

Frank Winfield Woolworth opened the first Woolworth’s store in 1879, as one of America’s early fixed price stores. Originally called “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store,” it grew to be one of the largest retail chains in the world through most of the 20th century largely due to its expansion overseas.

In 1909 Frank Woolworth opened his first store outside North America. By 1912 it’s British subsidiary had already grown to twelve stores.

Woolworth Named Largest Chain

In 1917 the company opened its thousandth store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. By the mid-1920s growth in the USA was slowing down. Rival dime stores had adapted to price inflation with fifteen cent lines. In the 1960s, the five-and-dime concept evolved into the larger department store format.

Here you could buy, suits, suitcases, television sets, chess sets, clocks, pans, fans, house wraps, and mouse traps. And a few hundred other things. By Woolworth’s 100th anniversary in 1979, it had become the largest department store chain in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

You Could Always Get a Cheeseburger at the Five and Dime

Like other department stores of the era, customers could take a seat at the long diner-style counter and order lunch. The lunch counter was one of the most popular aspects of this department store, it was a regular dining place for many.

The Woolworth company moved away from its five and dime roots and placed less emphasis on its chain as it focused on its specialty stores

Macy’s

Macy’s was the first department store in the United States. In 1843, The company began as a chain of dry goods store in Massachusetts. Its founder, Rowland Hussey Macy, decided to move operations to New York City in 1858, where the business grew to add on more departments.

In 1902, Macy’s built their flagship store on Herald Square in New York City where it’s still doing business today. This is the largest department store in America with 11 floors to shop! Today it’s a historical shopping landmark.

Black Friday

The day after Thanksgiving has been regarded as the beginning of America’s Christmas shopping season since 1952 but did not become widely used until more recently. It first appeared publicly in the New York Times in 1975 in which it refers specifically to “the busiest shopping and traffic day of the year.”

With all the retail department stores popping up across the United States, American’s were in a shopping frenzy. So, it leaves many to wonder who created the black Friday concept? Many have the theory that Macy’s Department store helped fuel the desire and excitement to shop with their yearly Thanksgiving Day parades.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades

In 1924, Macy’s Department Store launched its famous Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. There were floats, professional bands, and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. At the first parade, Santa was enthroned on the Macy’s balcony at the flagship store’s entrance, with an audience of over 250,000 people. The parade was such a success that Macy’s declared it would become an annual event.

The Thanksgiving Parades include an appearance by Santa at the end, with the idea that ‘Santa has arrived’ or ‘Santa is just around the corner’ reminding all that Christmas is the next holiday following Thanksgiving.

An Exciting Reminder

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades reminded everyone that Christmas was coming and to start shopping for the holiday after the Thanksgiving holiday was over. These large parades brought great exposure and success for Macy’s and it wasn’t uncommon for families to either watch or attend the parade every year.

Eventually, it just became an unwritten rule that no store would try doing Christmas advertising before the parade was over. Therefore, the day after Thanksgiving became the day when the shopping season officially started.