November 17, 2018

So Long, Sears!

“The orders poured in from everywhere — 105,000 a day at one point — so much so that the company became an economic force. It could make or break suppliers by promoting their products. It could dictate terms on manufacturing. Its headquarters city boomed as this tech-driven retailer built huge warehouses and factories and attracted other businesses and rivals. State and local governments complained that the company was harming small-town retailers.

That was Sears, Roebuck & Company in the early 20th century in Chicago. But at various times in the history of retailing you could apply like descriptions of retail might to Walmart, Kmart, Safeway, A.&P., and F.W. Woolworth, whose Downtown Manhattan headquarters building was christened the “Cathedral of Commerce” when it opened in 1913. Today the Woolworth Building is a luxury condo whose young residents are probably unaware of the extraordinary entrepreneur who built it.

Which is to say that becoming the nation’s leading retailer does not guarantee immortality, at least not beyond architecture. Sears, once America’s dominant retailer, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after 132 years in business.

Sears became the Amazon of its day because its co-founder Richard Warren Sears harnessed two great networks to serve his enterprise — the railroads and the United States Postal Service. When the Postal Service commenced rural free delivery in 1896 (the “last mile” in today’s jargon) every homestead in America became within reach.”

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