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Sears, Roebuck: The 19th Century's Amazon

Sears, Roebuck and competitor Montgomery Ward made nearly anything available to Americans anywhere, at low prices, express delivery and money-back guarantees. The order form in the front of a Sears catalog from 1912.

The Sears-Roebuck guarantee in the front of Catalog 124.

According to Professor Mordecai Roshwald, President Truman once said "If we could put a Sears catalog in every Russian's mailbox on Friday, communism would be dead by Monday morning." Here, an ad for "men's union suits," complete with "finished collar and pearl buttons." 

A Sears home catalog from 1918.

Sears, Roebuck put out its first catalog in the 1890's. You could buy a watch, jewelry and, later on, saddles, sewing machines, silk stockings, even live singing canaries. “The Sears catalog was a bit of a godsend to rural consumers,” says Art Carden, an economics professor at Samford University’s Brock School of Business.

Hello, consumer economy!

The Sears catalog gave people easy access, good quality, good prices, delivered to their doorstep. “The Sears catalog was even good for urban consumers because it meant they didn’t have to shop at the even pricier department stores,” says Carden.

“It is exactly the late 19th and 20th century predecessor to Amazon,” says Daniel Raff, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

So where did things go so wrong for Sears? When they are going so right for Amazon? “The large reasons have to do with the rise of internet commerce and the decline of the attractiveness of physical stores,” says Raff.

In 1925, Sears opened its first store. Today, Sears and its sister store Kmart, have twice the retail square footage of JC Penney.

But shoppers don’t want stores. More and more want to shop without leaving home. A model that Sears, at least in the old days, was really good at.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.

The Sears-Roebuck guarantee in the front of Catalog 124.

According to Professor Mordecai Roshwald, President Truman once said "If we could put a Sears catalog in every Russian's mailbox on Friday, communism would be dead by Monday morning." Here, an ad for "men's union suits," complete with "finished collar and pearl buttons." 

A Sears home catalog from 1918.

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Saying that people don't shop at Sears anymore just because we like shopping online better -- as if consumers are simple-minded slaves to trends, misses the point as to why Sears has declined. Sears used to be a purveyor of high quality tools, appliances, etc. with excellent customer service. They systematically changed their business model to one where they now sell cheaply made stuff from China, and customer service has declined significantly. 4 years ago I spent about $4000 on new Kenmore kitchen appliances. Yes, they all work, but with numerous design flaws and they scream "cheap". Their tools, snowblowers, etc have all followed the same path. Consumers shop on Amazon because the service is better and because we can get better quality merchandise at good prices. Sears signed it's own death warrant with this short-sighted strategy. They are NOT victims of quirky consumer trends.

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