There was a time when Sears made retailers shudder and would give the mailman — the now dinosaur politically incorrect term for postal carriers — hernias as the holidays approached.
It wasn’t as much from their mail order shipments as they would come by mail truck to your doorstep. It had more to do with their catalogs. This was back in the mid-1960s when there was no Federal Express and the Railroad Express Agency that relied on individual parcels being shipped via rail and then delivered to customers via a truck was still viable.
Mailmen for the most part hadn’t graduated to the latest technology known as pushcarts and were still lugging mail in huge leather sacks slung over their shoulders as they made their rounds six days a week.
Sears’ main catalog had grown so big that it came in two parts. The biggest barely fit through the mail slot and would land with such a thud that is sounded like a barbell slamming onto a wood floor. It was followed by a smaller supplement catalog and a flurry of white envelopes plastered with the obligatory 5 cent stamps cascading through the slot afterwards forming a decent sized pile on the floor.
Our mailman was not happy with us. He often complained bitterly to my mom during the holidays how it was bad enough we didn’t buy our magazines at the store like most people but we had an inordinate number of catalogs. There wasn’t just the main Sears catalog that came quarterly and was supersized for Christmas with the addendum catalog. There were also Sears’ specialty catalogs for patio and yard equipment, office needs, and home appliances. Along with them were the JC Penney and Montgomery Wards catalogs to name a few of the competitors that were always chasing Sears.
You’d flip through the thin color pages shopping to your heart’s content much like is done today via electronic devices. It was much less efficient but it had a distinct feel and smell — the paper Sears catalogs were printed on paper that smelled different than competitors.
You could order through the mail and have it delivered to your home or have it sent to the nearest Sears store to pick it up.
No one back then could imagine a world without Sears.
Sears wasn’t the first catalog ever in the United States. That honor went to the Tiffany’s Blue Book that hit the mail in 1845. Aaron Montgomery in 1872 took mail order catalogs one step further by super-sizing offerings directly to consumers in a bid not just to bypass the middle man but to do so on a scale that ordering by mail would not just be more convenient but would also be cheaper. It put downward pressure on prices.
Then came Sears in 1888. Sears did to the mail order catalog business what Amazon has done to e-commerce. What started out as a catalog of watches and jewelry quickly blossomed into 532 pages by 1895. They were selling things that you’d have to visit numerous stores to purchase.
Much like Jeff Bezos, Richard W. Sears capitalized on the subsidized United States Post Office rates. In the case of Sears, it was the rural free delivery service that lasted for decades that Congress dictated the Post Office provide.
In many ways Sears was more aggressive than Amazon. You could order automobiles from its catalog shortly after the turn of the 20th century as well as kits to build your own home.
And just like Amazon, Sears was a “fulfillment center” first and not a brick and mortar firm. The first Sears store per se did not open until 1925. Amazon in recent years has been toying with stores but has yet to make the big leap Sears did.
Sears also bought a lot of companies and product lines including Encyclopedia Britannia in the 1920s. Sears was still flying high in the 1980s when it kept buying firms such as the Dean Witter stock brokerage firm. Its core business was retail but you could buy Allstate Insurance and stock from Dean Witter in a number of their stores.
A century ago — and even 30 years ago for that matter — Sears was considered invincible.
Whether the firm makes it to 2020 is a tough bet to make.
That said the fact Sears was once the 900-pound gorilla of both mail order — the predecessor to e-commerce — and brick and mortar retail should make you think twice before assuming Walmart and Amazon are here forever. Amazon is king today but it isn’t dictator. Online sales are less than 11 percent of overall retail transactions for soft goods of which Amazon enjoys the lion’s share. While Amazon and online sales are expected to keep growing no one is rolling over and playing dead in the retail sector.
Brick and mortar retail trade us changing with the times to become more of an enjoyable experience booked ended by dining/entertainment and pampering.
Bezos is an impressive guy but no more so than Sears.
The empire he’s building is not really out of line with what Sears built.
And while some are busy writing Sears’ obituary, Amazon need not get too smug. Whether Amazon will make it to its 129th year as Sears has or stay on top of the heap forever is a long way from being answered. It’s something you might want to debate with friends by dropping them a post card, contacting them on AOL, or leave a message for them on their MySpace page.