The Sears Catalog
Nov 8, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
So I have a confession – I’ve become a bit obsessed with QVC as of late. I’ve yet to make a purchase, but first thing in the morning I find the happy chatter soothing. There’s something special about the environment the hosts create with their information and enthusiasm. It got me thinking again – and I know we’ve mused on the future of retail before – but I pondered on how removed our shopping experiences are now. We buy things by sight only, without the senses of touch or smell. We now purchase based on the number of yellow stars. That’s probably the very niche QVC has carved out – the ease of an online purchase with the warm fuzzy of a simulated sensory experience. But if you think this slice of the market is a modern concept – allow me to introduce you to the Sears catalog. Let’s put our modern sensibilities to the test, shall we?
The first catalog iteration was under the title of The R.W. Sears Watch Co. and was the result of a twist of fate. The railroad company a twenty-something Richard Sears worked for had received an unwanted shipment of watches. Ever the businessman, he purchased them in bulk and went on to sell them to colleagues for a profit. By selling them for less than the stores he carved out a nice business model and provided himself some future inspiration. Considering that with the Homestead Act of 1862 the country had expanded far into the West, Richard set about building a supply-chain that would get goods out into this brave, new world. Within two years after his first watch sale, his mail-order catalog debuted in 1888. Positioned as “the book of bargains,” the initial offerings were limited to what Richard knew best – watches and jewelry. Six years later and the selection expanded to include all sorts of goodies – sewing machines, instruments, firearms, buggies, clothing, and more. I can only imagine what this diversity meant for a mostly agrarian society. Even the most remote shoppers could select a special gift for that special someone. Geography was no longer a dependency – although the shipping times hadn’t approached the efficiency of Amazon Prime!
This new approach to shopping became so popular that within a couple years Sears, Roebuck, and Co. were issuing two catalogs a year (Spring and Fall). Each seasonal edition introduced new and exciting products – even groceries! In 1897, they began to publish in color. If I put myself in these shoppers’ shoes, I can see how thrilling it would be to get the latest catalog. In a time when color printing was still somewhat of a luxury, I can see folks excitedly flipping the bright pages to take in the latest inventions and fashions.
“We do comparatively very little business in cities, and we assume the cities are not our field, maybe they are, but I think it is our duty to prove they are not.” – Richard Sears
It’s interesting to note that Sears specifically targeted the rural consumer. As a Nebraskan, that focus speaks to my heart. Even though by the time I was born and reached shopping age there was over a century of commercial development, I still grew up feeling like our town was “behind the times.” Getting the latest styles from the one trendy shop at the mall was akin to a badge of honor. In many ways you can argue the internet is a great equalizer for the modern consumer – but vintage fans keep in mind that the Sears catalog got there first. (And they did it in a time that was less connected and less convenient. The Pony Express, while quick for the time, still made the cross-country journey over the course of several weeks.)
After the turn of the century, Sears went one step further in engaging their customer base by offering a profit sharing program. Empowering their shoppers was a great idea, but three short years later they ended the program in 1907. I wonder if there was a connection with the great financial panic. A year later and Richard retired from his company, but that wasn’t the only news for 1908. This was the year Sears introduced the first catalog house. I can’t help but wonder if that was his swan song. (After all, when people think of the Sears catalog they usually think of the houses first!) As time passed, the catalog expanded into more areas. Demand was solid and by 1925 Sears opened their first retail stores – bringing the “in-person” experience to their rural clientele. Yet the big catalog lived on into the early 1990s.
1903 – “Your money back if you are not satisfied” was written in Richard’s own hand on each order slip
1933 – Christmas catalog debuts
1968 – The “Wish Book” first appears
1989 – The 1-800 toll number for ordering goes live
When I think about the Sears catalog a few things come to mind – American ingenuity (Richard’s ability to take a moment & turn it into an empire), equality (making innovation accessible to the masses), and the joy of getting something special in the mail. We all know that thrilling moment when you find out that what’s in your mailbox isn’t a bill – I imagine if we bottled up that emotion and sent it back in time it would be just as comfortable around a 1890 farmhouse table as it is a 2017 NYC loft. That spark of glee is the legacy of Richard Sears to me. He built something from nothing, something that still speaks to us all these generations later.
Perhaps this notion of shopping without all of our senses isn’t so novel after all. As you dig in further you see that there really isn’t much that we do today that wasn’t done then. Customer reviews? Sears included customer testimonials alongside the product descriptions in his catalog. Target demographics? Sears studied his customers extensively – even editing copy to make sure each turn of phrase aligned with rural culture. The Costco model? Sears introduced a club order program, so friends and neighbors could leverage bigger discounts. Maybe Amazon isn’t as ground-breaking as we think – as vintage lovers know, each idea stands on the shoulder of a former breakthrough. Which leads me, dear readers, to consider what Richard Sears would say about the new Amazon Key program! Tell me what you think about this – is the future of retail really just the past re-packaged? Let me know your thoughts in the comments…