Reading List: Will Sears Survive?


Whatever you might be doing Christmas week, week, it’s our guess heading over to Sears won’t be high on your list. The rise of online retail continues, all sorts of new services, and a host of other options have made the mass merchant retailer a dying breed, and the actions of the company’s majority shareholder has many people shaking their heads

So it’s easy to forget that a monolith like Sears was once an idea in the head of a budding entrepreneur:

Like so many other stories of the American Century, the tale of Sears begins with the railroads.

In 1886, at a terminal in rural Minnesota, 23-year-old Richard Sears bought a shipment of gold pocket watches for $12 apiece and began selling them for $14 to men who previously had kept time by the movement of the sun. Thanks to both the recent introduction of time zones and the watches’ hint of modern sophistication, those timepieces netted Mr. Sears $5,000 in six months. He promptly moved to Minneapolis, founded R.W. Sears Watch Co. and began to sell by mail-order, placing ads in farm publications.

Richard Sears went on to introduce catalogs into the lives of most American households, and achievement many might consider as hard as Jeff Bezos encouraging us to shop via pixels. Crain’s has a long essay on the rise and fall of Sears — it’s engaging reading, and a reminder of how fast fortunes can change:

“Sears was so powerful and so successful at one time that they could build the tallest building in the world that they did not need,” says James Schrager, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “The Sears Tower stands as a monument to how quickly fortunes can change in retailing, and as a very graphic example of what can go wrong if you don’t ‘watch the store’ every minute of every day.”

Reading ListAlexander Ooms