Clock ticking for one of America’s most influential retailers

A photograph signed by Richard W. Sears sold for $1,792 at an October 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

This is a highly condensed story of an American retailing giant that only seems relevant as just another casualty of internet e-tailing. In cultural terms, it is generally portrayed as just another backwater wasteland. But this situation seems oddly different, since it seems like Sears has been a central player in the story of American life.

For a long time, the retailer’s products, publications and people influenced commerce, culture and politics. And then, slowly, it became subsumed into the gravitational pull of business bankruptcies that is relentless when corporate balance sheets weaken and finally fail. I selected it – rather than, say, Montgomery Ward, Atlantic & Pacific, or J.C. Penney – because of its long history and because its demise was like losing a century of exciting surprises to an indifferent bankruptcy judge who yawned and gaveled it into the deep, dark cemetery of obscurity.

Sears has roots to 1886, when a man named Richard W. Sears began selling watches to supplement his income as a railroad station agent in North Redwood, Minn. The next year, he moved the business to Chicago and hired Alvah C. Roebuck, a watchmaker, through a classified ad. Together, they sold watches and jewelry. The name was changed in 1893 to Sears, Roebuck & Company and by 1894, sewing machines and baby carriages were added to its flourishing mail-order business. Its famous catalogs soon followed.

Sears & Roebuck helped bring consumer culture to middle America. Think of the isolation of living in a small town 120 years ago. Before the days of cars, people had to ride several days in a horse and buggy to get to the nearest railroad station. What Sears did was make big-city merchandise available to people in small towns, desperate for news and yearning for new things. It made hard work worthwhile knowing that there was a surprise just over the horizon.

The business was transformed when Richard Sears harnessed two great networks – the railroads, which now blanketed the entire United States, and the mighty U.S. Postal Service. When the Postal Service commenced rural free delivery (RFD) in 1896, every homestead in America came within reach.

And Richard Sears reached them!

He used his genius for promotion and advertising to put his catalogs in the hands of 20 million Americans, at a time when the population was 76 million. Sears catalogs could be a staggering 1,500 pages with more than 100,000 items. When pants supplier and manufacturing wizard Julius Rosenwald became his partner, Sears became a virtual, vertically integrated manufacturer. Whether you needed a cream separator or a catcher’s mitt, or a plow or a dress, Sears had it.

The orders poured in from everywhere, as many as 105,000 a day at one point. The company had so much leverage that it could nearly dictate its own terms to manufacturers. Suppliers could flourish if their products were selected to be promoted. Competition was fierce and the Darwinism effect was in full play. Business boomed as the tech-savvy company built factories and warehouses that became magnets for suppliers and rivals as well. City officials complained that it was harming nearby small-town retailers (sound familiar?).

There was a time when you could find anything you wanted in a Sears catalog, including a house for your vacant lot. Between 1906 and 1940, Sears sold 75,000 build-from-a-kit houses, some still undoubtedly still standing. The Sears catalog was second only to the Holy Bible in terms of importance in many homes.

In 1913, the company launched its Kenmore brand, first appearing on a sewing machine. Then came washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and refrigerators. As recently as 2002, Sears sold four out of every 10 major appliances, an astounding 40 percent share in one of the most competitive categories in retailing.

By 1925, they opened a bricks-and-mortar retail store in Chicago. This grew to 300 by 1941 and more than 700 in the 1950s. When post-war prosperity led to growth in suburbia, Sears was perfectly positioned to cash in on another major development: the shopping mall. A Sears store was an ideal fit for a large, corner anchor store with plenty of parking. Sears revenue topped $1 billion for the first time in 1945 and 20 years later it was the world’s largest retailer and, supposedly, unassailable.


By 1991, Walmart had zipped by them … never bothering to pause and celebrate. For generations, Sears was an innovator in every area, including home delivery, product testing and employee profit-sharing, with 350,000 dedicated employees and 4,000 outlets. What went wrong?

The answer is many things, but among the most significant was diverting their considerable retail cash flow in an effort to diversify. Between 1981-85, they went on a spending spree, first acquiring Dean Witter Reynolds, the fifth-largest stock brokerage, and then real estate company Coldwell Banker. They ended up selling the real estate empire and then spun off Dean Witter in a desperate effort to return to their retailing roots. This was after someone decided to build a 110-story, 1,450 foot skyscraper with 3 million square feet (the tallest building in the world at the time) to centralize all their Chicago people and then lease whatever was left over. You have to wonder what all these people were doing. (It wasn’t selling perfume or filling catalog orders!). The Sears Tower is now called Willis Tower (don’t ask).

They stopped the catalogs in 1993. One has to speculate what would have happened had they simply put their entire cornucopia of goodies online. I know timing is everything, but in 1995, on April 3, a scientist named John Wainwright bought a book titled Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. He purchased it online from an obscure company called Amazon.

I will miss Sears when they gurgle for the last time. I cherished those catalogs when we lived in Independence, Calif. (the place Los Angeles stole water from via a 253-mile aqueduct). Me and my Boy Scout buddies all made wish lists, while occasionally sneaking a peek at the lingerie section.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Here’s Why Rosenwald Belongs with Titans Like Rockefeller, Carnegie

A card with signatures and a photograph of President Calvin Coolidge, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith and Julius Rosenwald, circa 1930, went to auction in 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

One fact that is difficult to verify is the total net worth of the Rockefeller family fortune. John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (1839-1937) rose from pious beginnings to become the world’s richest man by creating America’s most powerful monopoly, Standard Oil Company. Scores of muckrakers (especially Ida Tarbell) scorned it as “The Octopus” and posters protested the company by showing it swallowing the world … whole.

He is definitely the most prominent and controversial businessman in our history, especially when the trust he created came from refining 90 percent of the oil produced and marketed in America. His vocal critics charged he was an unscrupulous man who colluded with railroads to fix prices, and conducted illegal industrial espionage and outright bribery of political officials. It took Teddy Roosevelt and his team of stalwart trustbusters to break the trust, but even that inured to his benefit since he had ownership shares in all the new, smaller entities that were created.

Although the business practices were as ruthless and corrupt as charged, he was a quirky, passionate, temperate advocate who was generous and gave enormous sums to organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, University of Chicago and what is now Rockefeller University. As an old man (he lived to be 98), he was parodied as a harmless billionaire who delighted in giving shiny dimes to needy children.

The actual story has grown much more complex after his only son, John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960), took over the massive estate and had five sons of his own. The last one, David Rockefeller, died last year and his personal estate was auctioned off this month by an East Coast firm. The total net proceeds were consigned to 12 of his favorite charities, which will create another layer of veneer over the money. What we know is that 1,500 items sold for over $832 million, setting 22 records in the process.

Another son of Junior was Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979), who was governor of New York and made unsuccessful attempts to snag the GOP presidential nomination in 1960, 1964 and 1968. After serving in other high-profile positions, he was chosen by Gerald Ford to be the 47th vice president of the United States after Richard Nixon’s resignation. Rockefeller holds the distinction of being the last VP to decline to seek re-election when he decided not to join the 1976 Republican ticket with Ford.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was another famous philanthropist who made a fortune in steel and spent the last 18 years of his life giving $350 million to charities, foundations and universities. “I should consider it a disgrace to die a rich man.” Both the Rockefeller and Carnegie names have been well known throughout the 20th century, primarily because of the numerous foundations and buildings that bear their names.

But let’s focus now on an equally generous man who is largely forgotten because no foundations and few buildings mention him.

Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) made his fortune the old-fashioned way. He earned it. He started running a clothing store in Springfield, Ill., and then went to New York to learn about the garment business. When he returned to Chicago, he opened another modest clothing store, but also started shrewdly investing in a small catalog store with the undistinguished name of Sears, Roebuck & Company. When co-founder Richard Sears left the company in 1908, Rosenwald assumed a leadership role. With financial help from Henry Goldman (son of Marcus Goldman of Goldman Sachs), he expanded the company with a massive 40-acre mail-order plant on Chicago’s West Side.

Then, in an unprecedented move in 1906, an IPO with Goldman was created, and Sears became a public company. Rosenwald had climbed from a vice president to chairman and CEO, and the new plant in Chicago, with a staggering 3 million square feet, became the largest building in the world. In the process, Sears became America’s largest retailer and people all over the United States discovered how to order using the mail, after hours of thumbing through the sacred Sears catalog.

The demise of Sears is well known and the company is currently being dismantled and sold by brand. It may not be as quickly forgotten as Julius Rosenwald, who went to extremes to be modest. When he died in 1932, it is estimated that he had donated $2 billion to a wide range of interests, including projects that funded African-American education in the South. He funded a program to construct elementary and secondary schools in any willing black community. Over a 20-year period, 5,000 schools were constructed in the South, 90 percent of all buildings in which Mississippi’s black youngsters received an education.

Not bad for a generous man who had no need for recognition, just a desire to help needy people. Now another generation of people will know what he did, in such a humble and modest way, by insisting on closing his foundation after his death and opposing the attachment of his name to so many projects.


Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].