Historicizing the Decline of Sears Department Store


Sears, Roebuck letterhead from 1907 (Wikipedia Commons)

I was in the car with my Dad the other day and we were talking about the decline of Sears department store.  He is 75 and has never known life without the former retail giant. Since he is a retired contractor, we talked a little bit about Sears Catalog Homes.  “This is a historic loss,” he said.  Then we pulled into Home Depot to pick up a new lock for my front door.  I didn’t think about the irony until I started writing this post.

I thought of this conversation with my father as I read Micaela Marini Higg‘s piece at JSTOR Daily: “Could Sears Have Avoided Becoming Obsolete?”  The piece draws heavily on Richard Longstreth’s article “Sears, Roebuck and the Remaking of the Department Store, 1924-1942.”

Here is a taste:

It can be difficult to imagine when looking at the apocalyptically empty Sears stores of today, but the company was once on the cutting edge, breaking the retail rules of its time. In his 2006 paper in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, the historian Richard Longstreth explores how the mail-order company—which saw a meteoric rise as it transitioned to physical storefronts—created the department store as we recognize it today, including everything from store location to architecture to interior design. The company’s history, a mix of triumphs and disappointments, offers insight into the shopping patterns and needs of customers over the past hundred years. It tells a story of the slow death of malls and the department stores inside of them.

During the late-nineteenth century, mail-order businesses took advantage of expanding railway systems to reach rural farmers. The Homestead Act of 1862 dramatically increased the number of Americans who lived in areas without access to shops, and many general stores took advantage of this scarcity by hiking up their prices. Mail-order catalogs provided rural customers with the variety and competitive pricing of an urban store.

Richard W. Sears first launched his company in 1886, joining forces with Alvah C. Roebuck in 1887 to begin selling watches and jewelry through catalogs. One of many catalog businesses, Sears became known for its quality guarantee and its free return policy, similar to those used by online retailers today. In an interview with Stuff You Missed in History Class, Sears historian Jerry Hancock suggests that one reason for the popularity of catalogs in the Jim Crow South was that they allowed African Americans to shop without having to worry about segregated stores. Catalogs gave them access to products they would have had difficulty obtaining at brick-and-mortar locations.

With the corporate restructuring brought on by the company’s second president, Julius Rosenwald, Sears continued to expand the line of products it offered. Between 1895 and 1900, sales increased from $750,000 to $10,000,000, with Sears beating out rival catalog Montgomery Ward, which had been in business for nearly 30 years. Sears went on to quadruple its net sales between 1910 and 1920.

From this comfortable position as one of the leading catalog businesses in the country, Sears might have easily continued its trajectory by only focusing on the catalogs that had made it so successful. However, just as railroads and westward expansion into rural areas had created a need for catalogs, the years after World War I saw the rise of the automobile, with industrial development causing people to flock back to cities, creating a demand for retail spaces to serve them. While catalogs were popular among isolated rural customers, urban dwellers wanted the instant satisfaction of buying products in a store.

Read the rest here.