Before online, there was Sears

Published 5:28 pm Tuesday, October 30, 2018

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News that Sears has declared bankruptcy came as no surprise to financial analysts, who had watched the retail giant’s decline for decades.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to longtime customers, either. Anyone who has walked through the Sears store on Mercury Boulevard in recent years and heard the echo of their footsteps as they walked along aisles largely devoid of customers could not have felt good about the company’s future.

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And yet, there is sadness and a sense of loss to see the company that, more than any other, shaped American retail in the 20th century, gasping for breath so early in the 21st.

It’s being widely said that Amazon killed Sears. There’s imagery that seems to fit that conclusion. Amazon — the South American one — is home to both the giant Anaconda and the tiny and ferocious piranha. Sears, it might well be said, has been both suffocated and killed by tiny bites.

But it might also be fairly said that today’s Amazon model owes much to Sears, Roebuck and Company, which paved the way for at-home shopping before there was widespread electricity, much less the thing called the internet.

The original Sears company was founded 132 years ago by Richard Sears, who sold watches by mail order. A later iteration of the company combined the printed word and government’s farsighted introduction of Rural Free Delivery to reach rural America with a variety of products never before available in the nation’s isolated farm communities.

In those early years, farm families could buy everything from underwear to wood-fired cook stoves. And as technology brought new products into being, those products found their way into Sears catalogues and stores. Those wood cook stoves became electric and were among thousands of products offered. At one time, you could even buy a house from Sears, and have it delivered to your local train station. Some assembly required. Sears homes today are valued as an important piece of architectural history.

And while its catalogue sales soared, Sears tapped the growing mobility of the automobile era by building modern department stores that offered much of what was also available by catalogue. The combination of catalogue and store sales put Sears at the top of America’s retail juggernaut for decades.

And then came the big boxes. Sears took a beating from Kmart, which bought Sears in 2004, and Walmart, which left both in the dust.

And if that wasn’t enough, along came Amazon. As the public learned to use — and like — internet sales, Amazon sped past everybody else, including Walmart.

Sears may have been, as financial analysts say, the cause of its own demise. The once-mighty conglomerate was slow to realize the potential of internet sales — an ironic failure, given the firm’s early innovative spirit.

Businesses come and go, and Sears lasted longer than many, but the company’s history provides fond memories for old timers who remember the Wishbook being delivered by mail every fall, and a visit to a Sears Department Store as Christmas neared.