The End of Sears: An Essay in Nostalgia

Jan 20, 2023

Even though Sears, after multiple attempts at restructuring, went belly-up in Canada in 2017, it has still managed to stagger on in the US – albeit in a radically diminished form.

It has been a slow, quiet death for an iconic chain, whose ground-breaking catalogue and anchor position at many malls across North America once made Sears both the Amazon and Walmart of its day.

When Print Media Reigned Supreme

In an era when print media reigned supreme, Sears dominated the rural retail market through its huge catalogue, an amazing work of product advertising, consumer education, and corporate branding. 

Titled the Book of Bargains and later, The Great Price Maker, the famous Sears catalogue expanded in the 1890s from featuring watches and jewellery to including everything from buggies and bicycles to sporting goods and sewing machines. 

Many of us oldsters will remember the impact that the Sears catalogue exerted on family life. It encouraged us to avoid the urgent influence of salespeople in crowded stores and shop quietly and calmly from the comfort of home. When it arrived in our mailboxes, it was a huge event and everyone gathered around to see what was new and exciting in it.

Sears Taught Us How to Shop

The Sears catalogue enabled us to shop from our fireside or front porch. It educated millions of shoppers about mail-order procedures, such as shipping, cash payment, substitutions and returns. It used simple and informal language and a warm, welcoming tone. Sears taught Americans – and by extension Canadians – how to shop.

Even as recently as 2016, Sears Canada had a network that included 140 corporate stores (including full-line, Sears Home, and Sears Outlet stores), 71 Hometown stores, over 900 catalogue, and online merchandise pick-up locations, 69 Sears Travel offices, and a nationwide repair and service network.

A recent article in Indigo 9 Digital put Sears dominance in more contemporary perspective when it reported:

“Did you know that at one time Sears was the largest retailer in the world? That was back in 1969. During that time Sears was so dominant its sales represented 1% of the entire United States economy with two thirds of Americans shopping there. A few decades later when Sears merged with Kmart in 2005 the combined organization generated a substantial $55 billion in revenue.”

Sears Invented Consumer Credit

In 1985 Sears launched the Discover credit card, the first of its kind to offer cash rewards based on the amount of purchases a cardholder makes. In only four years 20 million people had a Discover card. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Sears invented the concept of consumer credit. 

As reported recently by CNN, in a nostalgic retrospective on Sears’ declining fortunes:

“The store made consumer credit widely available, which was a first for many of its customers. That allowed families to buy labor-saving appliances and electronics like washing machines, stereos and TVs that otherwise would have been out of reach. At one point, Sears claimed that 50% of American homes had an appliance made by Kenmore, the Sears brand.”

Final Words

Sears pre-dated Amazon by decades. It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that Amazon was made possible by Sears, re-packaged for the digital age. And now Sears are on the edge of oblivion – a fact that makes this writer a bit sad.



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