Sears Had Everything: How Retail Success Became Failure

From 1969 to 1972, the retail success story Sears used the catchy jingle, “Sears Has Everything!” Not anymore. It’s ironic that Sears, the mail order giant of the 19th century that dominated retailing throughout the 20th century could not survive the e-commerce age of the 21st century. After all, Sears created mail order marketing — which evolved into direct response marketing, right?

retail success

From 1969 to 1972, the retail success story Sears used the catchy jingle, “Sears Has Everything!” Not anymore.

It’s ironic that Sears, the mail order giant of the 19th century that dominated retailing throughout the 20th century could not survive the e-commerce age of the 21st century. After all, Sears created mail order marketing — which evolved into direct response marketing, right?

Trout and Ries had a term for this phenomenon in their landmark book, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind: “F.W.M.T.S.” — Forgot What Made Them Successful. In fact, Sears abandoned its catalog business in 1993.

As Shiv Gupta noted in his Target Marketing blog post on Tuesday:

“Sears was so busy picking up loose change off the floor, it forgot to look up at the bus barreling toward it.”

Sears really did have everything. At one point, you could buy a Sears house. “Sears Catalog Homes were catalog and kit houses sold primarily through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company, an American retailer. Sears reported that more than 70,000 of these homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940.” Wikipedia

But they also had the ability to capture the imagination of the American consumer. I have fond memories of going to the Sears store with my father and marveling at the range of merchandise: every tool imaginable, appliances, sporting goods, toys, clothing, jewelry — you name it; Sears had it.

Then there was the magical day that the Christmas Wish Book arrived in the mail and my siblings and I would spend hours with it, fine-tuning our wish list for Santa. Iconic Sears brands jumped off the pages of the catalog and into my imagination to become aspirational purchases: a Ted Williams baseball glove, a Silvertone guitar amp …

What happened?

Sears simply stopped innovating somewhere along the way. Here are some milestones:

  • “Founded shortly after the Civil War, the original Sears, Roebuck & Company built a catalog business that sold Americans the latest dresses, toys, build-it-yourself houses and even tombstones. The company was, in many ways, an early version of Amazon.” (NYTimes, 10/16/18)
  • In 1896, Sears benefited from a United States Postal Service program called Rural Free Delivery, which extended mail routes into rural areas. (NYTimes 10/15/18)
  • As more Americans began living in cities, Sears opened retail stores, the first in 1925 in Chicago.
  • “Later, its vast spread of brick-and-mortar stores positioned it in prime retail locations across the country. For years, it was the largest retailer in the United States, operating out of the tallest building in the world. At various points, it sold products like fishing tackle, tombstones, barber chairs, wigs and even a ‘Stradivarius model violin’ for $6.10.” (NYT 10/15/18)
  • Sears benefited from being a pioneer chain in a landscape of largely independent department stores. Along with JCPenney, it became a standard shopping mall anchor. Together, the two chains, along with Montgomery Ward, captured 43 percent of all department store sales by 1975 … (Then) Skyrocketing inflation meant low-price retailers, such as Target, Kmart and Walmart … lured new customers. The market became bifurcated, as prosperous upper-middle class shoppers turned to more luxurious traditional department stores, while bargain-seekers found lower prices at the discounters than at Sears. (Smithsonian 7/25/17)
  • Sears was major player in financial services in the 1980s, with Allstate Insurance and Dean Witter in the brand portfolio that included Kenmore and Craftsman. But by 1989, Sears was a shade of its former self. “It slashed prices on most of its inventory and in time shut its catalog operation, closed hundreds of stores and laid off tens of thousands of employees. Stores began carrying more outside brands and accepting nonstore credit cards to entice customers.” NYTimes 10/15/18

After abandoning the catalog business in 1993, Sears made a brief return to its roots by buying successful cataloger Lands’ End in 2002, only to spin it off in 2013.

In the end, Sears forgot what made it successful. It had everything. But Sears blew it.

Author: Chuck McLeester

Chuck McLeester's blog explores issues about marketing and marketing measurement. He is a marketing strategist and analyst with experience in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services, pet products, travel/hospitality, publishing and other categories. He spent several years as a client-side direct marketer and 25 years on the agency side developing expertise in direct, digital, and relationship marketing. Now he consults with marketers and advertising agencies to create measurable marketing programs.

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