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Long before Amazon, Sears taught Americans to trust shopping from home

Long before Amazon, Sears taught Americans to trust shopping from home
Sears, which filed for bankruptcy protection early Monday, was a retail pioneer but failed to transition to a new world of commerce. (EPA/Shutterstock)

The irony is that Sears figured out shopping from home long before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos even was born.

The company’s catalogs once were ubiquitous in American households, allowing consumers to browse merchandise from their living rooms — and pioneering the trust between a retailer and its customers that a century later would be the bedrock of e-commerce.

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You could even buy an entire house, delivered in pieces by train, from the Sears catalog. Amazon hasn’t figured that one out yet.

Sears’ parent company, Sears Holdings, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection early Monday, the latest retailer to become roadkill in an industry upended by technological advances and changing consumer tastes.

Sears will stay in business (for now) but will close an additional 142 stores even as it tries to figure out a way to squeeze desperately needed profit from the holiday season.

It’s easy to point at the various wrong turns the company made in recent years, the inability to develop a cogent online strategy, the increasingly unattractive stores.

But that doesn’t diminish the extraordinary role Sears played in the commercial history of the United States.

“There’s a famous saying that you have to die before you’re finally recognized for your virtues,” said Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University.

“The trust that Sears established with customers was crucial,” he told me. “They introduced ‘satisfaction guaranteed.’ If you’re not happy, you can easily return it. That’s a very important part of what Amazon offers today.”

Sears, like all great American businesses, grew from a simple idea — sell quality products at fair prices and customers will keep returning for more.

Just as Bezos began his online experiment with books, Richard W. Sears launched his company in 1886 with watches.

“If you buy a good watch you will always be satisfied, and at our prices a good watch will influence the sale of another good watch,” Sears declared. “And that's our motto: ‘Make a watch, sell a watch.’”

Think for a moment about the online stores you buy stuff from most frequently. Substitute Sears’ watches for any other product you like and you’ll see that he cracked the nut of persuading people to buy things sight unseen.

The launch of Sears’ general-merchandise catalog in 1896 demonstrated not just the confident cockiness of a Bezos or Steve Jobs, but also a belief that consumers will be loyal to any business that treats them respectfully and fairly.

That wasn’t just corporate propaganda. If you’re selling stuff by mail and want to keep selling stuff by mail, you better make good on your promises.

“They delivered on their promise from the very beginning — delivering on what customers expected and beyond,” said Theresa Williams, director of the Center of Education and Research in Retailing at Indiana University.

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Incredibly, Sears was able to pull that off for more than half a century, she said. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Sears started its long slide into retail mediocrity.

“The trust,” Williams said, “started to fail.”

Sears’ historical parallels with Amazon are a little spooky. Both companies began with single products and gradually added to their offerings until they became the go-to place for almost everything.

Both companies dominated remote sales, one via its catalogs and the other its website.

And both companies built on this success by transitioning to brick-and-mortar outlets. Sears’ hundreds of stores made it, at its peak, the largest U.S. retailer.

Amazon, after laying claim to nearly half of all online sales, is now opening real-world bookstores and convenience stores. It purchased the Whole Foods supermarket chain last year.

“The economics of a catalog and an online platform are similar,” said Robert Sanders, an assistant professor of marketing at UC San Diego. “Sears was ultimately not as successful because the internet does the same job much more efficiently.”

Another key difference between Sears and Amazon is how each company followed through on its successes.

“Sears was a part of the history and culture of America for a very long time,” said Barbara E. Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “But unlike Amazon, they never learned how to maximize the customer experience.”

Part of that is a factor of available technology. There are only so many ways you can crunch data from a catalog sale.

That said, Kahn observed that Amazon, unlike Sears, is obsessively focused on not just the transaction of the moment but also anticipating, and encouraging, your next purchase.

“That’s the particular genius of Amazon,” she said.

I don’t dispute that. Amazon has redefined retail by staying at least one step ahead of its customers while simultaneously, ruthlessly, introducing new efficiencies to the commercial process.

Bezos is a predator, which makes him a ferocious competitor.

Sears — the guy, not the store — was a brilliant marketer, but his taste for the hurly-burly of business may have had limitations.

It’s perhaps telling that when Sears retired as head of the company in 1908, he moved to a farm in Waukesha, Wis., where he died six years later at the age of 51. He was literally put out to pasture.

Bezos is 54 and shows no sign of slowing down.

Nowadays, Amazon is frequently the first stop people make when they need or want something. In its heyday, Sears enjoyed a similar status.

There was simply nowhere else you’d go if you wanted a good deal on an appliance. It sold quality, decently priced clothes. Its Craftsman tools and DieHard car batteries were second to none.

Times change, and Sears was unable to change with them.

The company aims to stay in business after bankruptcy, but it’s an open question if it can pull that off.

Its legacy, though, will persist.

“If you buy a good watch you will always be satisfied, and at our prices a good watch will influence the sale of another good watch.”

Make a watch, sell a watch.

Sears knew what it was a doing. And then it didn’t.

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