A Look Back At Sears Department Stores

As the retail industry has changed, some department stores have struggled to stay afloat. Perhaps one of the greatest examples is the Sears store, which was considered the Amazon.com of its time. The over 130-year-old chain store, once the largest retailer in the United States, has these days barely gotten by, emerging from bankruptcy but only able to keep 67 stores across the country open as of the end of 2020, with more planning to shut down.

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Sears was founded in 1892 by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck and reincorporated in 1906, originally beginning as a mail ordering catalog company until it opened physical locations in 1925. The first location was in Chicago, Illinois, where the Sears Tower (known as the Willis Tower since 2009) was headquartered.

In 1934, Sears started publishing the Christmas-themed Sears Wish Book, which was a separate catalog from the annual Sears Christmas catalog. Released annually in August or September, it contained toys and other holiday-themed merchandise. Besides the holiday guides, Sears also had the big-book catalogs, which featured everything from watches and underwear to house kits and home appliances. The house kits in particular were a popular option as they came in 447 different designs. The company started selling them in 1908 up until 1940, in total selling between 70,000 and 75,000 homes.

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Amazingly, Sears profits didn’t even slow down during the Great Depression, making around $12 million, or $201 million today. However, Sears has since struggled to compete with other retail chains like Walmart, Kmart, and Target. By 1991, Sears was no longer the top-selling retailer in the United States – that title went to Walmart. In 1993, Sears discontinued publishing their big-book catalogs and the Wish Book diminished in size, and by 1995, Amazon.com was gaining ground with its new book deliveries. The original Wish Book was abandoned in 2005, replaced by mini catalogs placed inside at-home deliveries.

Scroll down to see other vintage photos of the Sears catalogs and search for more in the Sears archives. Looking back, what are some of your fondest memories of shopping at Sears? Did you order products off of these catalogs?


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