The original "everything store" is a reminder that colossal success is always at risk.
In 1910, this city on the make scored a coup with a Sears, Roebuck and Co. distribution center serving a big chunk of the West. Built south of downtown, it was replaced in 1915 with a much larger building to handle orders from the Sears catalog. This one was graced with a distinctive clock tower.
You can still see it today in Sodo as the world headquarters for Starbucks. It sits there as an excellent example of historic reuse. But it’s also a cautionary beacon, not least for Amazon, cited as one of the reasons for Sears’ shocking decline and collapse.
All glory is fleeting.
Sears, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Monday, was for much of its 131 years a revolutionary company and an essential part of the nation’s life.
From big cities to farms, the Sears catalog was delivered to nearly every American home, dramatically changing shopping patterns. The retailer took advantage of the nation’s extensive railroad network, as well as the Post Office’s Rural Free Delivery, to gain unprecedented reach.
From the 500-page “wish book,” people could buy everything from clothes and toys to tombstones and even houses. More than 70,000 of the kit-built homes in 447 styles were sold by 1940.
“(Sears) was really a creation of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the catalog was the key,” according to William Rorabaugh, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in social history and urban history. “For a time, families could buy almost anything from the catalog, including a house kit for self-assembly. Several Sears houses were built in Seattle. It is bizarre to think that the lumber probably came from the Northwest and was then shipped to Chicago to be cut before being shipped back to the Northwest.”
Sears went public in 1906. But it wasn’t until 1925 that the first Sears store opened, soon followed by 300 more. Its house brands, such as Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools, became iconic.
For decades, Sears defied the stasis that is the enemy of so many enterprises. The stores were a response to most Americans living in towns and cities, as opposed on farms. Almost everyplace had a Sears store on Main Street or downtown.
After World War II, when freeways and low-interest FHA/VA loans subsidized the rise of suburbia, Sears followed. It was a prime anchor tenant for any mall. For much of the 20th century, Sears was the world’s largest retail-store chain, with 350,000 employees by 1969.
No one was surprised when, in 1973, the world’s tallest skyscraper was completed in Chicago, the 110-story Sears Tower. It was a sign of Sears’ all-American reach and power. The company was part of the Dow Jones industrial average from 1924 until 1999.
“Where America shops” was no mere ad slogan. It was largely true.
Nor were its leaders content with its retailing success alone. Sears founded Allstate Insurance in 1931. A pioneer in revolving credit with the Sears card, the company introduced the Discover card in 1985. Sears purchased the brokerage Dean Witter Reynolds in 1981. Its goal was to be the nation’s “largest consumer-oriented financial service entity.”
Rorabaugh told me that no single force contributed to Sears’ decline.
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“First, retail is complex and subtle,” he said. “In each generation there are one or more superior retailers. Think of the (Julius) Rosenwald incarnation of Sears, or JCPenney, or Sam Walton, or the Nordstroms. You can pass on the business, but you can’t necessarily pass on talent, which might emerge from somewhere else.”
In addition, he said, “it is hard for anyone in finance with a poor sense of style (Sears chairman Eddie Lampert is an example) to succeed in retail.”
It’s also difficult to turn around such a large company. Many critics argue that Lampert made a fatal mistake in merging Sears with Kmart. “He merely compounded the problem by having two big sick companies with many incompatibilities. The merger probably doomed Sears. K-Mart was already a dead carcass when he bought it,” said Rorabaugh.
Demographic changes also played a role, as the lower middle class — Sears’ key customer base in recent decades — switched to Costco, Walmart, and online Amazon. “Sears could not compete on price, which is all that matters to that income group, which has been shrinking in purchasing power, too.”
Sears for too long kept outdated locations, including in fading malls, and didn’t expand into growing sectors.
Its “merchandise was dated and tasteless,” Rorabaugh said. “Finally, entering retail is not too hard. Retail is not capital intensive like manufacturing, so barriers to entry for new talent are low. See Sam Walton.”
Amazon is no mere retailer any longer. But the lessons from Sears are haunting nonetheless.
As others have observed, Sears was the “everything store” a century before Amazon came along.