Richard Warren Sears was a railroad station agent in North Redwood, Minnesota, when he received from a Chicago jeweler an impressive shipment of watches which were unwanted by a local jeweler. Sears purchased them, then sold the watches for a considerable profit to other station agents, then ordered more for resale. Soon he started a business selling watches through mail order catalogs. The next year, he moved to Chicago, Illinois where he met Alvah C. Roebuck, who joined him in the business. In 1893, the corporate name became Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Farmers did business in small rural towns. Before the Sears catalog, farmers typically bought supplies (often at high prices and on credit) from local general stores with narrow selections of goods. Prices were negotiated (by the man of the family), and depended on the storekeeper's estimate of a customer's creditworthiness. Sears took advantage of this by publishing catalogs offering customers a wider selection of products at clearly stated prices. The business grew quickly.
Sears, Roebuck And Company catalog, 1918. Vibrators advertised were for general massage, and were not sexual in nature.
By 1895, the company was producing a 532-page catalog. Sales were greater than $400,000 in 1893 and more than $750,000 two years later. By 1896, dolls, stoves and groceries had been added to the catalog.
In 1906, Sears opened its catalog plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower in Chicago. Also, by that time, the Sears catalog had become known in the industry as "the Consumers' Bible". In 1933, Sears issued the first of its famous Christmas catalogs known as the "Sears Wishbook", a catalog featuring toys and gifts, separate from the annual Christmas Catalog. The catalog also entered the language, particularly of rural dwellers, as a euphemism for toilet paper. From 1908 to 1940, the catalog even included ready-to-assemble kit houses.
Novelists and story writers often portrayed the importance of the catalog in the emotional lives of rural folk. For children and their parents, the catalog was a "wish book" that was eagerly flipped through. It was not a question of purchasing but of dreaming; they made up stories about the lives of the models on the pages. The catalog was a means of entertainment, though much of its magic wore off with the passing of childhood.
Rosenwald takes control
Sears, Roebuck & Co. letterhead boasting of its Chicago plant, 1907
In 1893, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck renamed their watch company Sears, Roebuck & Company and began to diversify. The company had sales of $800,000 in 1895, but the national Panic of 1893—a full scale depression—caused a cash squeeze and large quantities of unsold merchandise. Roebuck decided to quit (though he later returned in a publicity role). Sears offered Roebuck's half of the company to Chicago businessman Aaron Nusbaum, who in turn brought in his brother-in-law Julius Rosenwald, to whom Sears owed money. In August 1895, they bought Roebuck's half of the company for $75,000. The new Sears, Roebuck and Company was re-incorporated in Illinois with a capital stock of $150,000 in August 1895. The transaction was handled by Albert Henry Loeb of the Chicago Law Firm of Loeb & Adler (now known as Arnstein & Lehr, LLP). Copies of the transaction documents are now displayed on the walls of the Law Firm. One of these documents, the Sears Roebuck & Co. Profit & Loss Statement dated January 13, 1895 is attached.
Sears Roebuck & Co. Profit and Loss Statement dated January 13, 1895
Sears and Rosenwald got along well, but Nusbaum was a problem. Sears and Rosenwald bought him out for $1.3 million in 1903.
Rosenwald brought to the mail order firm a rational management philosophy and diversified product lines: dry goods, consumer durables, drugs, hardware, furniture, and nearly anything else a farm household could desire. From 1895 to 1907, under Rosenwald's leadership as Vice President and Treasurer, annual sales of the company climbed from $750,000 to upwards of $50 million. The prosperity of the company and their vision for greater expansion led Sears and Rosenwald to take the company public in 1906, with $40 million in stock. After Sears resigned the presidency in 1908 due to declining health, Rosenwald was named president and chairman of the board and had full control. Sears's successful 1906 initial public offering (IPO) marks the first major retail IPO in American financial history and represented a coming of age, financially, of the consumer sector.
The company was badly hurt during 1919-21 as a severe depression hit the nation's farms after farmers had overexpanded their holdings. To bail out the company, Rosenwald pledged $21 million of his personal wealth. By 1922, Sears had regained financial stability. First he oversaw the design and construction of the company's first department store within Sears, Roebuck's massive 16-hectare (40-acre) headquarters complex of offices, laboratories and mail-order operations at Homan Ave. and Arthington St. on Chicago's West Side. The store opened in 1925. In 1924, Rosenwald resigned the presidency, but remained as chairman until his death in 1932; his goal was to devote more time to philanthropy.
The mail order market was based on rural America, with a slow-growing population and far less spending power than urban America. Rosenwald decided to shift emphasis to urban America, and brought in Robert E. Wood to take charge. The first Sears retail stores were opened in conjunction with the company's mail order offices, typically in working-class neighborhoods far from the main shopping center. Sears was a pioneer in creating department stores that catered to men as well as women, especially with lines of hardware and building materials. It deemphasized the latest fashions in favor of practicality and durability, and allowed customers to select goods without the aid of a clerk. Its stores were oriented to motorists - set apart from existing business districts amid residential areas occupied by their target audience; had ample, free, off-street parking; and communicated a clear corporate identity. In the 1930s, the company designed fully air-conditioned, "windowless" stores whose layout was driven wholly by merchandising concerns.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Sears built many urban department stores, and they overshadowed the mail-order business. Starting in the 1950s, the company expanded into suburban markets, and malls in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1959, it had formed the Homart Development Company for developing malls. Many of the company's stores have undergone major renovations or replacement since the 1980s.
In the 1990s, the company began divesting itself of many non-retail entities, which were detrimental to the company's bottom line. Sears spun off its financial services arm which included brokerage business Dean Witter Reynolds and Discover Card. It sold its mall building subsidiary Homart to General Growth Properties in 1995. Sears later acquired hardware chain Orchard Supply Hardware in 1996 and started home improvement store The Great Indoors in 1997.
In 1993, Sears terminated its famous general merchandise catalog because of sinking sales and profits. Sears Holdings continues to produce specialty catalogs and reintroduced a smaller version of the Holiday Wish Book in 2007.
In 2003, Sears sold its retail credit card operation to Citibank. The remaining card operations were sold to JPMorgan Chase in August 2005. In 2003, Sears opened a new concept store called Sears Grand. Sears Grand stores carry everything that a regular Sears carries, and more. Sears Grand stores are about 175,000 to 225,000 square feet (16,300 to 19,500 m²).
On November 17, 2004, Kmart announced its intentions to purchase Sears. As a part of the purchase, the Kmart Holdings Corporation would change its name to Sears Holdings Corporation. The new corporation announced that it would continue to operate stores under both the Sears and Kmart brands. In 2005, the company began renovating some Kmart stores and converting them to the Sears Essentials format, only to change them later to Sears Grands.
Logo used from 1967-1984.
Logo used from 1984-1994.
Logo used from 1994-2004. Used in Mexico since 1997. Still locally used on storefronts throughout the United States.
Sears has struggled with employee relations. One notable example was the shift in 1992 from an hourly wage based on longevity to a base wage (usually anywhere from $3.50 to $6 per hour) and commissions ranging from 0.5% to 11%. This new base wage, often constituting a substantial (up to 40%) cut in pay, was done "to be successful in this highly competitive environment."
In early October 2007, Sears cut commission rates for employees in select departments to anywhere from 0.5% to 4% but equalized the base wage across all Home Improvement and Electronics departments. In 2011, commission rates on non-base items were cut by 2% in the electronics department. In late 2009, the commission on sales of "base items" from the electronic department was cut to 1%. Appliances, vacuums, and mattresses are the only remaining departments where compensation is based entirely on commission. In many stores, jewelry department associates receive a low base salary with 1% commission on their sales.
Sears Essentials is a chain of discount stores that are common retrofit remodels of existing Kmart stores. Their product lines are similar to that of Sears Grand stores.
Sears Appliance & Hardware is a chain of hardware stores that carry the whole line of Sears hardware and are usually free-standing. More than 110 Sears Appliance & Hardware stores averaging 40,000 square feet (3,700 m2) serve customers nationwide. Stores were expanded to include Sears' full line of appliances in 2005.
Sears Optical is a chain of off-mall optical shops which carries all the same products and services as the optical department at regular Sears stores.
Sears Hometown Stores (formerly known as Sears Authorized Dealer Stores) is part of the retail operation of Sears Holdings Corporation and is a small-store version of Sears full-line department stores. Sears Hometown Stores, established in 1993, is a franchise formula and Sears Home Appliance Showroom, established in 2007, offers primarily appliances. The stores are located away from shopping malls and serve local communities across the United States and Puerto Rico.
Sears Outlet is an outlet version of Sears department stores located in various retail locations across the United States. The stores carry new, one-of-a-kind, out of carton, discontinued, used, scratched and dented merchandise at 20–60% off regular retail price. While a wide variety of products are available, appliances make up a large majority of available merchandise. Sears Outlet stores were once known as Sears Surplus. Many former Kmarts have been converted to serve as Sears Outlets, though these often take up less than half the floorspace.
Sears Parts & Repair Center, also known as Sears Service Center and Sears Home Central, is a chain of service centers that typically sell parts for lawn & garden equipment and appliances and also feature a carry-in point for customers to bring-in merchandise which needs to be repaired, either in or out of warranty. Sears has started closing many of these as more of its service and repair business is home-based.
Lands' End, aside from supplying its clothing line to Sears stores, also has 16 stores operated by Sears Holdings that carry only Lands' End clothing. These stores are located in outlet malls and regular malls. In December 2013, Sears filed SEC Form 10, a registration statement showing intent to spin off its Lands' End business. Lands' End will become a public company again.
A&E Factory Service is the newest name for Sears' longstanding on-site repair service, servicing larger items such as home appliances, electronics, and garden equipment. The A&E brand name was purchased from Montgomery Ward, which used it for their home service unit, and is a joint venture held by Whirlpool and Sears Holdings. A&E Factory Service is a network of mobile service vans with a long history of performing appliance repairs.
National Tire and Battery(NTB) & National Tire Warehouse(NTW) is an American brand of auto service centers. It was formerly owned by Sears until it was spun off in 2003. Sears created the brand in 1997 by consolidating the Tire America (TA) and National Tire Warehouse (NTW) brands, adding the "B" to include its DieHard brand of batteries. Sears sold the brand, which consisted mostly of stores set apart from its name brand stores, in 2003 to TBC Corporation. A Sears spokesman said "Because of the separate branding and the lack of proximity to our retail operations, we weren't able to drive growth like a TBC could". The chain of 226 stores was reported to have brought in $425 million in revenue and $60 million in profit in 2002.
Sears Brand Central was an electronics store. The appliances departments in Sears are now known and referred to internally as Brand Central, although they are not marketed to consumers as such, except for a few locations in Puerto Rico.
Sears Catalog Sales Stores were located in small towns. These stores were very small, even smaller than Sears' current Hometown Dealer stores. At catalog stores, some items could be ordered from the floor, such as appliances; other items could be ordered from catalogs at the store. These stores were often placed in rural markets which were far from full-line Sears stores, allowing for customers to purchase Sears products more easily. These stores were closed in 1993 when Sears closed its catalog business.
Sears Authorized Catalog Sales Merchant was an independent business person who provided many of the same services as the Sears Catalog Sales Store.
Sears Appliance Stores were small stores that displayed and sold (at Retail Store prices) appliances, carpeting, etc. and, in addition, provided a catalog sales department through which catalog items could be ordered.
Sears Rent-a-Car was a car rental chain formed in a joint venture with Budget. It was sold to Avis in 2002.
Sears HomeLife was a chain of furniture stores owned by Sears. The concept was introduced at a mall in Fresno, California in 1989, followed by a stand-alone store in Madison, Wisconsin. Sears sold the stores to Citicorp Venture in 1999, who changed the chain's name to just "HomeLife". They opened many locations inside large Sears stores or near the store depending on space available. HomeLife closed its last stores in 2001. In Puerto Rico, a few HomeLife locations are still present.
Sears Neighborhood was a chain similar to Sears Hometown stores, except that Neighborhood stores were located in urban markets. These stores were also independently owned and operated. The concept was introduced in Atlanta in 1998, and another similar store was located in Cincinnati. The Neighborhood stores closed in the early 2000s.
The Great Indoors was a chain of free-standing home decor stores that carry high-end home appliances, bedding, and kitchen and bath fixtures. The Great Indoors also offered custom kitchen and bathroom design services. Sears Holdings announced the closing of all remaining stores in 2012.
Sears Portrait Studio Ran by CPI Corporation, all Sears Portrait Studios ceased operations on April 6, 2013. CPI Corporation, in a statement on its website, said it closed all of its U.S. studios "after many years of providing family portrait photography." The St. Louis-based company didn't explain the hasty closure, and calls to CPI went unanswered. However, the company has struggled financially, hurt by the rise of digital photography.
Hercules – work clothing, appliances, insurance (Hercules Life Insurance Company, owned by Sears), sewage systems, letterman's jackets, fire extinguishers, heavy-duty coveralls, and home heating systems;
Seeking to spread its operations out in a business park, Sears left in 1993 and subsequently sold the tower, moving to Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Even though its naming rights to the building expired in 2003 it remained the Sears Tower through early 2009. In March 2009 London-based insurer Willis Group Holdings, Ltd., was given the building's naming rights to entice the occupancy of the building. The official renaming as the Willis Tower took place on Thursday, July 16, 2009, during a public ceremony hosted by Willis Group Holdings. Despite this, the tower is still frequently referred to as the Sears Tower by the general public, especially by locals.
Sears moved to the new Prairie Stone Business Park in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, between 1993 and 1995. The office park has a focus on technology and sustainability, featuring an extensive landscaping plan that uses native prairie plants wherever possible, and a system of several express bus routes coordinated with Pace to encourage public transportation use with a future stop on the Metra STAR Line. Despite these services, the remote location of Prairie Stone means that it is much less well served by public transportation than the centrally located Sears Tower.
The Sears Centre is a 10,001-seat multi-purpose arena located in Hoffman Estates adjacent to the Prairie Stone campus.
^This Week in Consumer Electronics, Whirlpool Bears First Fruits Of Maytag Merger At Home Depot, 10/09/2006.
^Yard and Garden, Filling the gap: now that home centers are "servicing what they sell," where do dealers fit into this rapidly changing retail channel?; Profitably running your service department, March, 2005.