A Brief History of Sears & Roebuck (deceased)

Sometimes life throws you a bad pitch. Most of the time, we swing and miss because we focus on our outcome rather than what possibility lies before us. This story is about making the best of what lies before us. This is the story of Richard Sears.

Richard was a young man when his father lost all his money on the farm, and so he had to go to work to support the family. He took a job on the railroad and worked his way up to station agent in North Redwood, Minnesota. To earn extra money, he sold coal and lumber.

One day a box full of watches was delivered to his station by a deceitful watch manufacturer. The manufacturer would send a box of watches to the local jeweler who never asked for or expected a shipment. When the jeweler would telegraph back saying he did not want the watches because the price was too high, the manufacturer would send back this message. “For you, I will drop the price by half” The jeweler knew he was being scammed and refused the shipment. He took the shipment to the railroad office where Richard was working and arranged for the shipment to be returned.

Richard was always looking to make money for his family, so he wrote the company and asked to buy the watches to sell them. What Richard knew and the jeweler did not know the railroad clerks were struggling with keeping time and the newly created TIME ZONES that were put in place.

Richard sold so many watches left the railroad and started a company selling watches. He said, If you buy a good watch, you will always be satisfied, and at our prices, a good watch will influence the sale of another good watch; and that’s our motto: “Make a Watch Sell a Watch.” He was so successful selling watches that he added a partner named Alvah to repair the watches. Alvah and Richard proudly provided a six-year warranty for their watches, something unheard of at the time. If a watch should stop or need cleaning, Alvah took on that task.

Richard made watches for sale flyers to send all over the rail system. It was then he decided that watches were a drop in the bucket. He expanded his product line and became very proficient at writing and merchandising by mail. Richard started sending sales flyers to rural areas where the choices for products were slim.

Business boomed as Richard became more proficient at selling through the mail. He decided to publish a catalog of watches. The first catalog contained 25 watches in the mid-1880s. The catalog was 140 pages seven years later and sold everything for wagons, babies, shotguns, and carriages. By 1900 the catalog was over 507 pages.

Alvah and Richard decided to create a partnership. They named the Sears and Roebuck, whose corporate headquarters was in Chicago. The company grew as the country and improvements to communications grew. People across the United States could purchase just about any product anywhere where the rails traveled. Sears and Roebuck became so powerful of a merchandiser that small mom and pop shops called Sears, “Rears and Soreback” or “shears and Rawback as they steadily lost customers. Success bloomed, and

Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck changed the United States one catalog at a time. There was a downside, however. The company grew so fast it wore Richard Sears out. He resigned as president in 1909. Richard Sears died in 1914, leaving an estate of 25 million dollars. In 2018 dollars, it would be worth 631 million.

Today Sears is dead. Just like Sears changed the landscape of shopping in the 1900s, Amazon and other online businesses have changed business today. It is sad to see Sears decline. People will lose their jobs. Shopping centers will take a hit. Dreams will be lost or deferred. I hope for those affected that the road will be smooth as they move on. Unfortunately, there will be more words of criticism than praise for the company. It will be viewed as a failure in business, but did Sears fail? I say no.

If we think about 120 years in business, we have to say that Sears was a massive success. How many marriages occurred because two people worked together at Sears? How many children went to college because of Sears? How many households had washers, dryers, homes, clothes, and many other goods because Sears was successful? What child in the 1960s did not patiently waiting for the Sears Christmas Wishbook to be delivered so they could make their Christmas list of toys for Santa? Millions of people have been touched and their lives improved by Sears and Roebuck!

Along the way, Sears and Roebuck created Kenmore appliances, DieHard batteries, Craftsman tools, Allstate Insurance, and Discover Card. They provided everything home and family would need and, in the process, employing millions. It is a legacy few companies in history can claim. So when you drive by your empty Sears store, remember they served us well.