Obituary: Sears

Death of a giant

Sears, Roebuck and Company filed for bankruptcy on Monday, Oct. 15.

Started in 1886, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by Richard W. Sears, it initially sold mail-order watches until moving to Chicago. Since then, Sears has pioneered American retail, revolutionizing consumer buying habits twice — first through its mail-order catalogs, then through its department stores, which realized the commercial possibilities of personal automobile ownership.

The Sears catalog connected its far-flung customers, including remote farmers, with new products. One of Sears’ most laudable, if lesser known, accomplishments was undermining Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century by connecting southern black farmers with goods otherwise unavailable to them through local business.

The Sears catalog even sold do-it-yourself house kits. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold between 70,000 and 75,000 homes around the country, producing nearly 450 designs for home buyers of all financial means.


By 1931, the growing retail company had generated $180 million in revenue (or close to $3 billion in 2018 dollars). It continued to grow during the Great Depression by championing “an aesthetic of thrift,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Still dominant through the 1960s, Sears built Chicago’s tallest skyscraper for its corporate headquarters, wrapping up construction in 1973.

Around this time, Sears’ star began to fade. Retail competitors were chipping away at Sears’ market share. Even as Sears expanded some of its business (starting the Discover Card in 1985), Walmart overtook it as the country’s largest retailer in 1991. The famous Sears catalog died in 1993.

Kmart purchased Sears in 2005, creating “Sears Holdings.” The combined companies generated $1.5 billion in 2006. But between 2011 and 2016, it lost $10.5 billion. Its stock dropped from $170 a share in 2007 to under $4 a share by the beginning of 2018. The Sears Tower was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009.

The last gasp

Just under 700 Sears and Kmart stores remain, and at least 142 will soon close. Liquidation sales at the open stores are expected to begin in the next two weeks. If Sears is unable to reach a viable restructuring agreement in bankruptcy, all remaining Sears and Kmart stores may close.

Pour one out for a legend.


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