Sears, Roebuck and Co. History
Hoffman Estates, Illinois 60179
Telephone: (847) 286-2500
Fax: (800) 427-3049
Sales: $41.4 billion (2002)
Stock Exchanges: New York Chicago London Amsterdam Pacific Swiss EBS Dusseldorf
NAIC: 452110 Department Stores; 454110 Electronic Shopping and Mail Order Houses; 441310 Automo- tive Parts and Accessories Stores; 442299 All Other Home Furnishings Stores; 444130 Hardware Stores
Sears, Roebuck and Co. is a leading retailer of apparel, home and automotive products and services, with annual revenue of more than $40 billion. The company serves families in the U.S. through Sears stores nationwide, through our catalogs, and through this web site.
- R.W. Sears Watch Company is founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
- Richard Sears relocates to Chicago and Alvah Roebuck joins the fledgling company.
- First mail-order catalogue is published.
- Needing funds for expansion, Sears incorporates and goes public.
- Sears begins offering its customers credit.
- First Sears, Roebuck retail store is opened in Chicago.
- Craftsman and Kenmore proprietary brands are introduced.
- Annual sales top $1 billion for the first time.
- The Sears Tower becomes the company's official headquarters in downtown Chicago.
- Sears changes its image with a new advertising campaign.
- Sears.com is launched.
- Sears buys catalogue retailer Lands' End and introduces the Covington label.
- Citigroup announces plans to purchase Sears' credit card business.
With a network of more than 870 full-line department stores and 1,300 freestanding specialty stores in the United States and Canada, Sears, Roebuck and Co. is the world's fourth largest retailer. For more than a century Sears has provided consumers with top brand names synonymous with durability and quality. Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, Diehard car batteries, and WeatherBeater paint are a just a few of its most recognized products; Sears also provides a variety of competitively priced apparel for men, women, and children featuring its own brands (Canyon River Blues, Covington, TKS Basics) and such staples as Levi's jeans and Nike athleticwear. A newer addition to its empire came with catalogue and online retailer Lands' End, acquired in 2001.
Humble Beginnings: Late 1880s to 1914
Sears bears the name of Richard W. Sears, who was working as a North Redwood, Minnesota, freight agent for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad in 1886 when a local jeweler gave him an unwanted shipment of pocket watches rather than return them to the manufacturer. Sears sold them to agents down the line who then resold them at the retail level. He ordered and sold more watches and within six months made $5,000. He quit the railroad and founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company in Minneapolis.
Business expanded so quickly that Sears moved to Chicago in 1887 to be in a more convenient communications and shipping center. Soon customers began to bring in watches for repairs. Since he knew nothing about fixing them, Sears hired Alvah Roebuck, a watch repairman from Indiana, in 1887. A shrewd and aggressive salesman--a colleague once said of him, "He could probably sell a breath of air"--Sears undersold his competition by buying up discontinued lines from manufacturers and passing on the discounts to customers. At various times from 1888 to 1891, thinking himself bored with the business, Sears sold out to Roebuck but came back each time.
In 1888 the company published the first of its famous mail-order catalogues. It was 80 pages long and advertised watches and jewelry. Within two years the catalogue grew to 322 pages, filled with clothes, jewelry, and such durable goods as sewing machines, bicycles, and even keyboard instruments. In 1894 the catalogue cover proclaimed Sears was the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth."
The company changed its name to its current form in 1893, but Alvah Roebuck, uncomfortable with his partner's financial gambles, sold out his share two years later and remained with the firm as a repairman. Sears promptly found two new partners to replace Roebuck: local entrepreneur Aaron Nusbaum and Nusbaum's brother-in-law, haberdasher Julius Rosenwald. The company recapitalized at $150,000, with each man taking a one-third stake. The company continued to prosper; when the cantankerous Nusbaum was forced to sell out in 1901 after clashing with Sears, his interest was worth $1.25 million.
There was little harmony between the two remaining partners, Rosenwald and Sears. Sears believed in continuous expansion and risk-taking; Rosenwald advocated consolidation and caution. Rosenwald also objected to his partner's fondness for the hard sell in the catalogue and advertising copy. Had the Federal Trade Commission existed then, some of the company's advertising practices probably would not have passed muster--but it should be mentioned that Richard Sears invented the unconditional money-back guarantee and stood by it.
In 1905 construction began on a new headquarters plant on Chicago's west side to consolidate all of the company's functions. To help raise the necessary capital, Sears went public in 1906. Yet Wall Street was leery of the incautious Richard Sears and he resigned as president in 1908 when it became clear he was obstructing the firm's progress. He was appointed chairman, but his heart was never in the job and he retired in 1913, never having presided over a board meeting. Sears died the following year at the age of 50. Near the end of his life, he summarized his career as a merchant: "Honesty is the best policy. I know, I've tried it both ways."
New Leadership and Growth: 1915 to the Late 1920s
Sears was now Julius Rosenwald's company to run and he did it with such skill and success he became one of the richest men in the world. Sales rose sixfold between 1908 and 1920, and in 1911 Sears began offering credit to its customers at a time when banks would not even consider lending to consumers. During this time the company grew to the point where its network of suppliers, combined with its own financing and distribution operations, constituted a full-fledged economic system in itself. Rosenwald's personal fortune allowed him to become a noted philanthropist--he gave away $63 million over the course of his life, much of it to Jewish causes and to improve the education of Southern blacks. As a result of the latter, he became a trustee of the Tuskegee Institute and a good friend of its founder, Booker T. Washington.
The depression of the early 1920s dealt Sears a sharp blow. In 1921 the company posted a loss of $16.4 million and omitted its quarterly dividend for the first time. Rosenwald responded by slashing executive salaries and even eliminated his own. He was also persuaded to donate 50,000 shares from his personal holdings to the company treasury to reduce outstanding capital stock and restore the firm's standing with its creditors. Sears thus weathered the crisis and benefited from the general prosperity that followed.
Rosenwald retired as president in 1924, retaining the chairmanship he had inherited from Richard Sears. He was succeeded by Charles Kittle, a former Illinois Central Railroad executive. In 1925 Sears began to take on its current shape when it opened its first retail outlet in Chicago. Seven more stores followed that year and by the end of the decade 324 outlets were in operation. Retailing became so successful for Sears that by 1931 the stores topped the catalogue in sales. The company's entry into retailing was the brainchild of vice-president Robert Wood, who was an executive at archrival Montgomery Ward before Rosenwald hired him in 1924. Wood was always known as "the General" after serving as the U.S. Army's Quartermaster General during World War I. He had also been chief quartermaster for the construction of the Panama Canal. He much preferred business to the military, however, and his long career in merchandising earned him a reputation for genius.
For its first 40 years, Sears had targeted the U.S. farmer as its main customer, luring him with a combination of down-home earthiness and the tantalizing prospect of material luxury. Two postal service innovations--the rural free delivery system in 1891 and the parcel post rate in 1913--had helped target this consumer by making it affordable to reach remote locations by mail. Sears quickly became parcel post's largest single customer. Then Wood saw that automobiles would soon make urban centers more accessible to outlying areas, broadening the customer base for retail outlets. Thwarted by the conservative top management at Ward's, he wasted no time in implementing his vision at Sears. At first, the stores simply absorbed surpluses from the catalogue, but they soon began to offer a full range of goods. Sears also became the first chain to put free parking lots next to its stores. More than anyone else, it was Robert Wood who turned Sears into a leviathan.
Robert Wood Taking the Helm: 1929 to Mid-1940s
Charles Kittle died suddenly in 1928 and Wood succeeded him. In 1929 Sears arranged a merger between two of its suppliers, Upton Machine and Nineteen Hundred Washer Company, to form Nineteen Hundred Corporation, which changed its name to Whirlpool in 1950. Somewhat against its intentions, Sears became increasingly involved in the affairs of its suppliers, many of which were small companies whose outputs were almost entirely geared to its needs. Another leadership change occurred in 1932 when Julius Rosenwald died at the age of 69 and was succeeded as chairman by his son Lessing.
The onset of the Great Depression hurt sales from 1930 to 1934, but thanks to cost-cutting measures Sears posted a loss only in 1932. The company, in fact, had diversified in 1931 when it created its Allstate subsidiary (named after the company's own Allstate tires) to sell auto insurance. Wood saw it as another way to capitalize on the growing popularity of the automobile. He installed agent Carl Odell as general manager, an acquaintance who had suggested the idea as they commuted to work one day.
Lessing Rosenwald retired in 1939. Preoccupied with running his father's estate, he had never attended a board meeting. Wood succeeded him, and the power of chief executive passed from the presidency to the chairmanship. At about this time, however, Wood also became controversial because of his prominent support for America First, an isolationist organization from which Charles Lindbergh made his notorious anti-Semitic speeches. Wood dropped his backing once the U.S. entered World War II and publicly supported the war effort, but remained a strong critic in private ever after.
As war loomed, Sears benefited from increases in military spending and a consumer buying panic. In 1941 sales reached an all-time high of $975 million, a 30 percent increase over the previous year. Sales then leveled off, however, and raw material shortages made durable goods hard to come by. Even as late as 1946 Sears had to refund $250 million in orders that could not be filled. Military procurement, however, helped make up for the shortfall. During the war, Sears supplied the Armed Forces with just about everything that did not need gunpowder to make it work, and even a few things that did--as some factories belonging to Sears suppliers were converted into munitions plants by the War Department. Sears also began its first foreign ventures during and immediately after the war. In 1942 a store opened in Havana (later nationalized by the Castro government in 1960) and several opened in Mexico in 1947.
Wood's Postwar Expansion: Mid-1940s to 1960s
Once the war ended Sears flourished with sales up to $1 billion in 1945, which doubled the next year. Anticipating an economic boom, Wood launched an aggressive expansion program. Concentrating on the Sun Belt states, he located many of the new stores in the path of suburban expansion before the areas built up. One store in California was established on a dairy farm and had cows roaming around the parking lot when it opened. Thanks to the General's prescience, Sears left its rivals in its wake. In 1946 it held a small sales advantage over Montgomery Ward, but in 1954 posted sales of $3 billion while Ward, which had been slower to anticipate postwar trends, mustered only $1 billion. Sears also became a symbol of U.S. prosperity. In the late 1940s the Moscow bureau chief for the Associated Press reported that the most effective piece of foreign propaganda in the Soviet Union was the Sears catalogue.
At the same time, Sears became a widely hailed living experiment in corporate management. Wood had long wanted to decentralize the company and its postwar success gave him the luxury to remold it in his image of "corporate democracy." The merchandising operations were carved up into five regional territories with each given a high degree of autonomy. Although buying operations remained centralized in theory, buyers were in fact allowed substantial independence. To its employees, many of them returned veterans (the company hired 50,000 people between 1946 and 1949 alone), Sears became, as author Donald Katz put it in The Big Store, "a place where country boys and infantrymen could speak their minds and still roam free."
During the early 1950s Sears began to stock more clothing as durable goods sales slackened. The new postwar suburbanites who bought their first homes had already filled them with all the Sears appliances they needed. At about this time the company strengthened its ties with its suppliers even further. Between 1951 and 1960 Sears acquired virtually complete control of Warwick Electronics, which made televisions, radios, phonographs, and tape players. In 1961 it effected a merger between 15 of its soft goods suppliers and created the Kellwood Company.
Robert Wood retired in 1954 at the age of 75, but retained power over appointment of his successors until shortly before his death (in 1969). A series of caretaker chairmen followed him, none of whom served more than six years. In 1963 the company posted sales of $5.1 billion, and an executive with the discount chain Korvette quipped that Sears was not only the number one retailer in the United States, but also numbers two, three, four, and five. Surveys showed that one in five U.S. consumers shopped at Sears regularly; its sales volume was greater than that of some entire industries. The company had become big enough to justify its own shopping center development subsidiary, Homart Development, which had been formed in 1960.
Retailing Giant Beginning to Falter: Late 1960s to 1980
In 1967 Sears posted $1 billion in monthly sales for the first time. In 1970 Allstate Enterprises, a subsidiary formed in 1960, acquired Metropolitan Savings and Loan Association, the first of several savings and loans it purchased over the next two decades. Also in 1970, construction began in Chicago on the 110-story Sears Tower. Completed in 1974, the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world for many years and a symbol of corporate pride at a time when Sears dominated U.S. retailing unchallenged.
That era was fading, however, even as its monument rose above the Chicago skyline. Recession caused by skyrocketing oil prices led to a $170 million drop in profits in 1974 on only a modest sales increase, and financial performance remained flat through the middle of the decade. It became apparent to many that success had made Sears complacent and the company had long ignored some real problems. Competition was also getting serious. Specialty shops that filled the very malls anchored by Sears stores were cutting into market share, as were such discounters as the resurgent S.S. Kresge Co., which changed its name to Kmart Corporation in 1977. Hard times meant the company's shortcomings could no longer be obscured by success or justified in the name of tradition. Sears had to be shaken up, and it fell to Edward Telling, a company veteran who took the reins in 1978, to do it. Formerly head of the eastern territory, Telling had smashed local concentrations of power in the name of efficiency and proceeded to do the same for the parent company, centralizing all buying and merchandising operations. The once revolutionary territories were slowly eliminated.
Income declined from 1978 to 1980 and was subjected to intense scrutiny by Wall Street. Outsiders were not always impressed by Telling, a downstate Illinois native whose homespun manner tended to conceal--often by choice--his erudition and keen intellect. It was through his guidance that Sears undertook a major corporate reorganization in 1981.
Diversification and Its Consequences: 1981-91
Telling also saw the burgeoning financial services industry as one in which Sears should get involved. In 1981 Sears acquired the Los Angeles-based Coldwell Banker Company, the nation's largest real estate brokerage, and securities firm Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. Three years later, Sears launched Prodigy, an online service, with IBM and CBS. At the end of 1985 Telling retired and left a radically different company from the one he had inherited. He had reined in the once sprawling bureaucracy of Sears and taken the first steps toward diversifying into the burgeoning financial services market. Telling was succeeded by Edward Brennan, who had headed up the merchandising division, and had always preached that Sears was just "one big store."
In 1985 the Discover Card was unveiled, a combined credit and financial services card that also offered savings accounts through Greenwood Trust Company, a bank acquired by Allstate Enterprises earlier in the year. By this time it was estimated that one in every 30 living Americans had worked for the company in some way at some time. In 1987, perhaps conceding that the era of the big general merchant was over, the merchandise division launched a new strategy to turn Sears into a collection of specialty superstores. The next year Sears acquired Eye Care Centers of America, Pinstripes Petites, and Western Auto Supply as its workforce reached an all-time high of 520,000. Yet the surge of adrenaline anticipated by Coldwell Banker and Dean Witter failed to materialize.
As stock prices lagged, takeover rumors circulated and management pondered ways to increase shareholder value and stave off possible attempts. In late 1988 Sears announced plans to sell Coldwell Banker's commercial real estate unit, the Sears Tower; it also planned to buy back some of its own stock. Further, Brennan, who had become company chairman in 1986, announced a new retail strategy of "everyday low prices" to reduce the number of sales and promotions. These new moves, however, provided unsatisfactory solutions. The Sears Tower went on the block during a commercial real estate glut in Chicago and no buyer was found. Lower prices squeezed profit margins because of the company's still-bloated cost structure. Merchandising profits fell from more than $700 million in 1986 to $257 million in 1990, as overall profits slid from over $1.3 billion to $892 million during the same period.
A Slimmer, Resurgent Sears: 1992-95
Whether or not Sears could sustain financial improvement through growing sales remained to be seen in the early 1990s. Brennan, representing the third generation of his family to work for Sears, was under considerable pressure from investors and the financial press to turn the company around and increase outsider representation on the board of directors. In 1992 the company slashed 47,000 jobs and suffered a shocking year-end loss of almost $2.3 billion on sales of $53.1 billion.
To stave further losses and concentrate on the company's department store roots, Brennan began what became the largest restructuring ever: he sold the Eye Care Centers, the remainder of Coldwell Banker (residential real estate), and spun off Dean Witter and the Discover card services. The automotive group, under siege after a service fraud scandal and 20 percent sales dive, quit repairs to concentrate on selling tires and batteries, then filled vacant bays through a deal with Pennzoil's Jiffy Lube. In merchandising, Brennan's handpicked successor, Arthur C. Martinez, moved quickly and decisively to put a shine to the tarnished Sears image. Catering to female consumers (estimated at 70 percent of sales), Martinez launched a far-reaching advertising campaign on the "softer side of Sears," brought in more famous-name clothing items, and put the company's former mainstay--the 101-year-old catalogue--out to pasture (smaller, specialized catalogues were later revived in 1994).
Year-end figures for 1993 supported the streamlining efforts and a $4 billion renovation program with lesser sales ($30.4 billion) but a return to profitability at $2.4 billion. By 1994 the Sears half-million-plus workforce had been whittled to less than 361,000, underperforming stores were closed, and others enlarged to include national brand names. The company was also finally relieved of the Sears Tower (put in trust for transfer in 2003) and freed of $850 million of debt. The next year was filled with more immense change--Brennan retired and was succeeded by Martinez, and Allstate, the country's largest publicly held property and casualty insurance carrier with over $20 billion in sales, was spun off. In addition, Martinez added further feminine touches to Sears with 152 "Circle of Beauty" in-store cosmetics boutiques providing skin care, fragrance, bath, makeup, and stress-relieving products.
To make way for the beauty lines, appliances, hardware and furniture were moved out of mall-based stores and into their own freestanding buildings (as Sears Hardware, Sears HomeLife and Sears franchise stores) to help serve the rural segment previously handled by the catalogue. Sears also followed rival J.C. Penney's lead and introduced its own line of denim sportswear under the Canyon River Blues label. Although Lee and Levi's jeans had always been big sellers at Sears, the private label ran about $10 less and debuted with a splashy media campaign in late 1995.
In just seven months Canyon River Blues apparel rang up $100 million in sales. Likewise, the newly upgraded jewelry and shoe departments gained double-digit growth while Western Auto, the company's stalwart auto titan, spawned a line of aftermarket merchandise stores called Parts America, opening 30 stores in 1995 and planning another 60 for the following year. While revenue climbed only a notch to $34.9 billion for 1995, net income was a sturdy $1.8 billion with retail profits hitting $1 billion for the first time.
Roller Coaster Ride: 1996 to 2003
Another success story in the late 1990s was the Sears credit card, which contributed mightily to the company's revenue by attracting 6.4 million new cardholders in 1996 alone, bringing the nationwide total to 55 million. Other highlights of the year included Martinez being named Financial World's CEO of the Year and the purchase of Orchard Supply Hardware. Yet by the following year Sears had started to stall once again, so Martinez began trimming underperforming operations including selling off most of the firm's stock in Sears Roebuck de México S.A., bailing out of the Prodigy/IBM joint venture, and surprising investors in 1998 by getting rid of Western Auto and its Parts America chain. Also on the selling block were the underperforming HomeLife furniture stores, with a majority stake (over 80 percent) sold to a subsidiary of Citicorp. As the downward slide continued, executives jumped ship, thousands were laid off, and Martinez himself left Sears in 2000.
Martinez's successor came from within the ranks as Alan J. Lacy took the reins in October 2000 as president and CEO and added chairman by the end of the year. As a former CFO and head of card services, Lacy was an insider and reportedly well liked by both board members and Wall Street. Although Sears rallied briefly with strong appliance sales and growth in its credit card revenues, apparel sales were weak. The well known "softer side" campaign had garnered plenty of attention and early success, but the words had come to mean something entirely different in the minds of investors. Despite the soft sales, however, there were steady gains in footwear and a new housewares concept called "The Great Indoors."
In 2001 Sears aggressively touted its new gold MasterCard with a low introductory rate, hoping to convert many of its regular Sears credit cardholders to the more widely accepted format. Next came financing for the embattled HomeLife stores, but the move soon proved too little too late for the 133-store chain. Suffering a similar fate were the initially popular Circle of Beauty in-store boutiques (introduced in 1995); the beauty products line was discontinued in the summer of 2001 along with a fragrance joint venture with Avon (which continued a similar deal with rival J.C. Penney). A major makeover of the company's 867 stores was also underway, to better compete with J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart, Target, and rising star Kohl's Department Stores. While 2001 year-end revenues rose slightly from the previous year's figures ($41.1 billion vs. just under $41 billion), operating income fell from $1.3 billion in 2000 to $735 million for 2001 due to the various write-offs and cost-cutting measures. Cautiously optimistic, Lacy and his board members were soon ecstatic when share prices soared in early 2002, hitting $54 in April and $59 in May, seeming to herald the long-awaited turnaround.
The optimism, however, was short-lived. Sears had come to rely on its credit cards and financing operations too heavily. The Sears MasterCard, with 22 million cardholders, accounted for less than half the company's charge customers and the new card seemed to be cannibalizing its siblings. Lacy's solution was to convert all Sears account holders to the MasterCard. A good idea, yet with higher credit limits and newly launched cash advances, defaults were soon on the rise. Coupled with still-sluggish apparel sales, Sears faltered once again: stock prices plummeted and heads rolled. The year's only bright spot had been the June acquisition of catalogue and online retailer Lands' End, for $1.8 billion--though some worried what was seen as a good move for Sears was a bad move for Lands' End.
Would Lands' End prove the venerable retailer's savior? Or would the cost dimple an already taxed bottom line? In 2002 and 2003 these questions were answered--short-term at least--when Sears once again bounced back. Both Lands' End and a new basics label called Covington pumped up apparel sales, with revenues, income, and stock prices all gaining. Despite declines in credit card revenues, Sears continued to bolster its image with both consumers and Wall Street, for awhile. In 2003 such stalwarts as Wal-Mart and even fast-food giant McDonald's found themselves in a financial slump, and the same was once again true for Sears. Pink slips were given to hundreds of employees at the company's headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and its credit card unit--formerly a cash cow--was up for sale. In July Citigroup announced that it would purchase the company's credit card business for $3 billion. In addition to the much needed cash resulting from the deal, which was expected to close by year-end, Sears would retain another $3 billion it had in the business as a portfolio reserve.
Once the world's largest retailer, Sears had suffered through almost four decades of turmoil. In 2003 the mass merchandiser was ranked fourth (behind Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot), with its future uncertain. Though updated full-line stores were making an impact with consumers, the instability of the economy and job losses made mall shopping more of a luxury than a necessity. Competition continued to be fierce--Wal-Mart and Target usually beat Sears in price, J.C. Penney spiffed up its teen lines, and upstart Kohl's attracted customers in droves with brand-new stores and numerous splashy advertising campaigns. While Sears continued to struggle with its identity, what had not changed were its famously dependable appliances (Kenmore), tools (Craftsman), and selection of sturdy, low-priced apparel. With new private labels including Covington and the acquisition of Lands' End, Sears endeavored to achieve the stability and sales it once took for granted.
Principal Subsidiaries: Lands' End; NTB (National Tire & Battery); Orchard Supply Hardware; Sears Canada Inc.; Sears Consumer Financial Corp,; Sears DC Corp.; Sears Hardware; Sears de México, S.A.; Sears Overseas Finance N.V. (Netherlands); Sears Roebuck Acceptance Corp.
Principal Divisions: Lands' End; Sears Auto Centers; Sears Hardware; Sears Home Improvement Services; Sears Optical; Sears Parts and Service; Sears Termite and Pest Control; The Great Indoors; National Tire Wholesale (NTW).
Principal Competitors: J.C. Penney Company, Inc.; Kohl's Department Stores, Inc.; Target Stores; Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
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Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 56. St. James Press, 2004.comments powered by Disqus