5 Ways Sears Changed Retailing as We Know It

It made shopping a national pastime, long before Amazon and big-box stores

Sears' catalog, which debuted in 1893, helped revolutionize how people shop. Getty Images
Headshot of Robert Klara

This morning’s announcement that Sears was filing for bankruptcy protection validated predictions retail analysts have been making for some time now that legacy retailers, saddled with mall locations and a dated reputation, ultimately could never compete with nimble, younger entities like Target and, of course, Amazon. Sears said it will close 142 of its stores, and CEO Eddie Lampert, who merged Sears and Kmart in 2005 and has been selling off real estate to keep the company afloat, will step down immediately. While Lampert’s hedge fund, ESL Investments, said “we believe the company has a future” and is negotiating to purchase a remaining chunk of Sears stores, long-term prospects for the 125-year-old brand are anything but encouraging.

Even though it’s easy enough to dismiss Sears stores, with their bare shelves and empty parking lots, as an irrelevant relic of retailing’s past, the fact is that Sears was a pioneer, a household name that wasn’t just America’s largest retailer until Walmart overtook it, but a company that changed how Americans shopped and set the stage for the eretailers that would follow. Below, a few of the ways consumers shop today began with Sears.

Shopping through the mail

While Sears was most recently known for its hundreds of mall-based locations, the company actually prospered for 32 years before it ever opened its first brick-and-mortar store. Simply put, it didn’t have to. For millions of Americans, shopping at Sears meant buying something through the company’s famous catalog, which first appeared in 1893. A former railroad worker, Richard Sears understood that a geographically expanding America meant that a huge base of potential customers didn’t live anywhere near a department store. Sears’ solution was to bring the store to them, and his catalog normalized the idea of mail-order shopping. But according to Michael Priem, founder and CEO of corporate advisory firm Modern Impact, the catalog transcended convenience to become an early influencing device. “The Sears catalog helped influence fashion design. It was a sense of discovery, and it helped shape what [consumers] wanted,” he said.

The discounting pitch

Walmart might have found success with its tagline “Everyday low prices,” but Sam Walton trotted out that promise in 1962. Sixty-eight years before that, in 1894, Richard Sears was writing copy for his catalog when the inspiration hit him to call it the “Book of Bargains,” calling it “a money saver for everyone.” Sears also proclaimed his company to be the “cheapest supply house on earth.” These early efforts taught consumers to equate the Sears brand with saving money—a time-honored tradition that’s a retail staple to this day.

The original “everything store”

Sears started out as seller of wristwatches, but as the company expanded, it steadily diversified its offerings until, by the early 20th century, Sears sold nearly every item that could be sold—not just clothing and shoes and sporting goods, but bicycles, saddles, sewing machines and even firearms and live poultry. By 1908, Sears’ offerings came to include an item that most presumed was impossible to sell through the mail: actual houses, which arrived disassembled by train. According to Allan Steinmetz, founder and CEO of Inward Strategic Consulting, Sears’ practice of offering everything and anything shipped to your door is a kind of template for what consumers now take for granted when they visit Amazon. “Amazon has usurped this positioning by establishing affiliate micro branded sites, thereby allowing it to offer just about every product available through multiple large and small manufacturers to be delivered to individuals’ homed within 24 hours,” he said. “This idea was pretty much what Sears offered with their original catalog business early in the 20th century.”

Exclusive celebrity collections

Target made fashion headlines when it began collaborating with fashion heavyweights on exclusive collections, starting with Isaac Mizrahi in 2003, then going on to include the likes of Alexander McQueen, Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu and Stella McCartney. But Sears found success with this formula a full generation earlier. In 1981, Sears inked a deal with fashion model Cheryl Tiegs, who’d turned heads in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue not long before, to develop a clothing label bearing her name to be sold exclusively at Sears. That pioneering idea surprised and attracted shoppers, who’d wind up dropping $100 million on Cheryl Tiegs clothing.

Private-label brands

Sears developed its own stable of brands that helped draw customers to its stores, which in turn helped accentuate the reputation of the Sears name. Its line of Craftsman tools, DieHard car batteries and Kenmore appliances were often marketed as stand-alone brands, but shoppers knew that they’d have to go to Sears to buy them. For instance, in the late 1970s, Sears parked a car atop a frozen lake in Minnesota for three months and then started the car. The TV spot demonstrated the performance of the DieHard-brand battery but at the end slipped in the reminder that DieHard was “sold only at Sears.” According to retail consultant Bruce Winder, Sears’ staggering array of offerings “helped fuel the wants and needs of America’s once-thriving middle class,” which explains why “its private brands became national brands to many.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.