Before Richard Sears began his catalog, known affectionately as "The Big Book", rural Americans were limited in what they could buy and where they could buy it. Generally, most peole shopped at a town's general store, and often times had to wait weeks or months to get specialty goods shipped. Sears completely changed the game. Aided by some technological changes like the railroad and the modern post office, Sears cut out the middle man and sold goods directly to small town and rural America through its catalog. Like Amazon today, "Sears' Big Book" sold basically everything under the sun. They had all the things you'd expect in a catalog, like home goods and clothing, but they also had so much more! Products like guns and ammo could be purchased site unseen with no background check, baby chickens that would ship alive for the buyer to raise; Early cars were available. You could even buy a full-blown Ikea-style house that was shipped to you for a little more than $1000.
As the catalog grew, so did the company. With its growth, the innovations continued, again, sound like Amazon? No, they weren't delivering by drone or even overnight for $3.99, but they were opening retail stores in urban areas, like this one in Charlotte. Eventually, in the middle of the 20th century, brick & mortar sales would surpass the catalog sales.
In 1904-05, Sears built one of the most impressive corporate campuses of its day; the Googleplex of the early 20th century. The Sears, Roebuck & Co Complex was located in Homan Square, in west Chicago and it had everything an employee would need. The massive complex covered over 55 acres. The heart of the operation - the Mail Order Plant - was 3 million square feet by itself! They also decked out the facility with all kinds of amenities for their employees. They, along with a handful of other companies, were on the cutting edge of these kinds of conveniences. For example, Sears set up a bank for their employees savings accounts. Sears wisely figured out that if they ran their own bank, it would not only be convenient for their employees, but those employees would be depositing their checks right back into the company, allow Sears to re-invest that money almost immediately. They set up a huge cafeteria that ran at all hours, as their were men and women working on sight almost every hour of every day. The built huge athletic facilities and fielded company baseball teams. They even pioneered the use of a sprinkler system and had their own volunteer fire department. Richard Sears called it "A city within a city" and that is truly was.
By 1960, Sears were the largest retailer in the world and they distributed all the catalog goods out of huge warehouses located on the campus. The original Sears Tower, quite a bit smaller than its more famous, newer brother, stood watching over the entire campus. The company would base its operations here for more than 65 years, until they built something even bolder.
Eventually Sears would build the tallest structure in the world, The Sears Tower, since renamed The Willis Tower. With its completion, Sears would consolidate their thousands of employees spread throughout Chicago into one place and it's where they would be headquartered for the next 20 years. The tower was a tangible example of the strength and size of the company in its heyday.
Catalogs, tall buildings and corporate campuses weren't all they did. First, they went public. They were the first retailer to ever have an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange. They also started a credit cards business and even jumped online in the early days of the Internet and more.
The most well-known of which is the Craftsman line of tools, which are still among the most popular today. But there were many other examples, like Kenmore appliances and the defunct J. C. Higgins guns.
And moved into the Credit Card business, competing directly with Mastercard and Visa. Not content to simply have store credit cards, Sears boldly jumped into the broader credit card market, offering low rates and high cash rewards just as millions of everyday Americans were signing up for their first credit cards.
The companies teamed up to launch Prodigy, which was one of the earliest online ventures in the world. Prodigy had some early competition, like CompuServe, but it survived and thrived in those very early online days. Eventually AOL would come along and dominate that field. Ironically, it would be the internet, among other things, that would eventually knock Sears from its perch.
and many celebrities have been associate with it over the years. Like Cheryl Tieg in the 80s, who had her own exclusive clothing line. Lauren Bacall modeled in the 40s and Susan Heyward did the same in the 30s.
Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was probably the most famous and he endorsed all kinds of sports equipment, including baseball equipment, naturally but also hunting & fishing gear. Iconic Hollywood cowboy Roy Rogers was another big time name that lent his name to goods in the magazine, mostly toy guns and kids cowboy costumes,
The artist more associated with small town America than anyone else, Norman Rockwell, worked with the catalog. Mostly famous for his iconic paintings that graced the cover of "The Saturday Evening Post" depicting an idilic view of life in small town America, he once painted a cover for the catalog. The cover painting was of a boy looking at, what else, the Sears catalog. He also sold prints of the that painting through the catalog and even jigsaw puzzles made from the same painting.
In the 70s and 80s, Sam Walton and Walmart would take the country by storm, offering, like the Sears Catalog, everything under the sun -- but they offered it all under one roof, right there, in town, no need to wait for the mail. Eventually Walmart overtook Sears as the biggest retailer in the world in 1989. Walmart's status remains today.
The final blow to the Sears catalog business was, of course, the internet. Online retailers like Amazon were nimbler and more innovative and Sears, with its antiquated catalog, was left in the dust. Sadly, the final "Big Book" was sent out in 1993, having lasted more than 100 years from when Richard Sears sent his very first one.
At the turn of the 20th century, Sears was a pioneer in the era that laid the template for all that you expect delivery of in the 21st century, from Netflix to Amazon to groceries and anything else you can think. That era is long past now, but Sears' role will hopefully never be forgotten.
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