Sears is a major retail chain in the United States. It’s the place where many Americans shop for clothing, appliances, lawn care equipment and automotive supplies. The store carries a large variety of housewares as well as furniture and much more. It was known as the place where America shops, but the giant is now floundering, taking the path that many other major companies have in a downward spiral of failure. Sears has been such a major part of people’s lives we decided to share 20 facts that most people don’t know about the company.
1. It started out as a watch company
The very first Sears store to open its doors for business sold just one type of product. It was the R.W. Sears Watch Company. It was located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The operation was set up as a mail order supplier for watches and jewelry. None of us who are accustomed to shopping at Sears today would even remotely recognize the company in its early phases. It’s undergone quite an evolution. The only way to make purchases back then were to place orders through the mail and wait for your packages to arrive.
2. Sears was founded in the 1800s
Richard W. Sears founded the first Sears store in 1886. His idea to create a mail order business was actually one of the best methods for reaching the majority of potential customers. It was far more effective than setting up a brick and mortar establishment because many of Sears’ customers were in more remote locations. By offering catalog mail services, everyone could order merchandise from Sears from private individuals to store owners who would then sell the items in their establishments.
3. Sears sold out and developed Sears Roebuck & Company in 1893
Just a year after Richard W. Sears established his watch and jewelry catalog company, he hired Alvah C. Roebuck as a watch repairman The first catalog for the business was sent out that year. The business was sold in 1889, but he and Roebuck set up yet another mail order catalog company an in 1893 they called it Sears, Roebuck & Company. There are still a few vintage catalogs from this era which have been carefully preserved as museum pieces and a part of the history of the rise of American retail.
4. The company changed radically in 1895
Big changes were coming to the small operation in 1895. Julius Rosenwald was a very rich clothing manufacturer and he took an interest in the Sears, Roebuck & Company mail order business. After some negotiations he bought Roebuck’s interest in the company and set about the task of reorganizing the mail order business. It was at this time that Sears experienced a period of growth and phenomenal selling, adding new merchandise and offering the items at low prices.
5. Sears became a mainstay for farms and villages
Up until the time that Sears started offering a full range of housewares, clothing and other items, smaller towns and farms didn’t have easy access to these items. It was a problem in the rural areas and so the people who were living in these areas welcomed the service that would improve their lives. Free delivery of merchandise was offered to Sears customers in 1896 and by 1913, parcel post through the US Postal Service allowed Sears to reach even the most isolated customers who ordered from their catalogs.
6. Rosenwald took over Sears
In 1909, Julius Rosenwald succeeded Richard Sears as the president of the company. This came as no surprise because he had the business savvy to expand the operation and the financial backing to do almost anything that he wanted to grow Sears into a mail order retail giant. The popularity of Sears grew dramatically throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s and it became the main go-to for ordering necessities such as equipment, clothing and much more.
7. Sears owned Encyclopedia Britannica
This is an interesting and fun fact that we discovered when we were researching the history of Sears. They actually owned Encyclopedia Britannica. They offered it for sale through their catalog while they were still the owners during the era of 1920 through 1943.
8. A General became an early executive of Sears
In 1924, Sears brought on board General Robert E Wood. He was the gentleman who would guide the company through 1954 during a time when the company would undergo tremendous changes and evolve into the retailer that more closely resembles the brick and mortar department stores that we’re most familiar with today. It was Wood that realized with the increasing number of automobiles on the road, customers would have better access to a brick and mortar establishment. While the catalogs still remained a major focus of the business, it was under his direction that Sears opened its first retail store. The new store opened in Chicago, Illinois in 1925. This was just the beginning. By 1931, the number of retail stores had increased and the sales from these stores exceeded the sales which were being made through the mail-order catalogs.
9. Sears became the largest retailer in America in the 1980s
From the time that the first retail stores opened their doors in 1925, Sears continued to add more stores throughout the country. It was during the period of the economic boom right after World War II that the Sears company absolutely flourished. It’s often referred to as the place where America shops and this wasn’t just an advertising gimmick. It was the honest truth. Sears became the largest retail store in America and it maintained its lead until the Kmart Corporation came along and surpassed them in their total sales during the 1980s.
10. Sears was unseated by Kmart and Walmart
The company that had become a mainstay for American shoppers would only hold its positioning until the 1980s. When Kmart came onto the scene, they offered products that were imported from other countries and offered them at lower prices. Although the quality of the products that Kmart sold couldn’t be compared to that of Sears, the public was looking for more affordable products to purchase and Kmart had a huge selection to offer them. You could find practically anything at Kmart that you could at Sears and the price was drastically reduced in most cases. Kmart didn’t hold the top position for long though. They would meet a similar fate when Walmart came along and took the number one position from both of the competitors.
11. Sears Diversified in the ’80s
The Sears corporation made a bold move in the 1980s. It was obvious at this time that they were no longer the highest grossing retail store and they were looking into other ventures to keep the company solvent They branched out into real estate as well as financial services. The move didn’t accomplish what the executives had hoped for.
12. Sears started its decline in 1992
The core retail operations of the Sears corporation were lagging behind their competitors. The company was no longer thriving in the retail industry and they were forced to take action to try to fix the problem. One of the first actions that Sears took was to start selling off some of their subsidiaries so they could turn their focus and resources to their core retail operation. In 1993, Sears discontinued printing its general catalog that had been issued for more than a hundred years. The hard times called for drastic measures to be taken and this would just be the beginning of the trouble that Sears would be plagued by.
13. Sears established the Allstate Insurance Company
Here is another interesting fact about Sears that many people are not aware of. They established the Allstate Corporation which is an insurance company that they founded in 1931. It was their biggest subsidiary company. This is an example of their diversification which started way back in the early 1930s. Allstate was a successful insurance company and Sears spun it off in 1995.
14. Sears acquired Lands End in 2002
Sears was still a massive giant in the retail industry, even when they lost their posturing to Kmart and then later to Walmart. The company was still expanding and taking on new ventures. They acquired the retailer Land’s End and the venture cost them almost $2 billion. In 2005, Sears went on to purchase their next largest competition Kmart and they spent $12 billion. Both of these retailers became subsidiary companies under the reorganized Sears which became known as Sears Holdings Corporation. At htis point in time, Sears was the third largest retailer in America.
15. Kmart failed before Sears
Most of us remember when Kmart began its decline. Those who held stock in the company watched their investments dwindle to nothing. Even though Kmart took a downward and consistent spiral, Sears remained prosperous under the ownership and control of Edward S. Lampert who maintained a 40 percent interest in the corporation.
16. Sears Holdings Corporation made some controversial moves
Starting in 2014, Lampert made some decisions that would affect the Sears Holdings Corporation dramatically. They were controversial and ill advised but he went ahead with his plans against advisement. He began buying back the stocks and insiders warned that this would weaken Sears Holdings because it would reduce the amount of available cash. At the same time, Sears Holdings started selling a variety of its assets including Land’s End in 2014. After the spin off of this subsidiary, Lampert purchased a controlling interest in Sears Canada. This was an ill-timed move because just four years later it closed. Since then there have seen several Sears stores with locations in the United States that have closed.
17. Sears filed for bankruptcy
Following a downward trajectory, Sears Holdings was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October of 2018. The retail giant that had risen to such great heights of importance in the lives of the American people has landed in a precarious position. This is the way that it has gone for other large retailers. Some blame it on the economy, not keeping up with the competition and others blame it on a series of poor decisions made by the leaders in charge of the Sears Holding Corporation. Some believe that it is a combination of all of these factors that has brought the giant to its knees.
18. Sears had a struggle with their employee relations
There has been an ongoing issue with the Sears Holding Corporation and its employees and it has not been a positive situation. The first evidence of trouble came in 1992 when they initiated a change from providing their workers with an hourly wage that was based upon their longevity with the company. The shift switched workers to a base wage that ranged between $3.50 to $6 per hour and included commissions in the range of between $.05% to 11%. Sears had a weak rationale for the change that in many cases cut workers compensation by up to forty percent. They claimed that this was necessary for them to remain competitive in the industry, which didn’t satisfy the employees who were taking the financial hit.
19. Sears cut commission rates further
In October of 2007, Sears dealt their workers another blow by cutting back the commission rates yet further. Some departments received more drastic cuts than others which represented a lopsided treatment of employees based upon the departments in which they worked. This behavior continued and further cuts were made in 2009 and then again in 2011. Workers in the appliance department were not paid a base salary as their pay was based solely upon commission. If you didn’t sell any appliances for the week, you could work at Sears for a full week and not earn a cent in pay.
20. The Sears Catalog was formerly known as “The Consumer’s Bible”
The last interesting fact about Sears that we’d like to share with you is in their grand and glorious history. The Sears catalog and their willingness to ship orders to people who lived in remote areas helped the nation to grow, to prosper and to establish a higher standard for living. The Sears Catalog was a vital alternative to retail for those who didn’t have the means to travel to larger cities to make their purchases.