Sears (officially Sears, Roebuck & Co.) is an American chain of department stores founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1886; it used to be based in the Sears Tower in Chicago, and is now headquartered in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. It began as a mail order catalogue company, and began opening retail locations in 1925. The company was bought by the American big box chain Kmart in 2005, which had just emerged from bankruptcy at the time and renamed itself Sears Holdings upon completion of the merger. In terms of domestic revenue, Sears was the largest retailer in the United States until October 1989, when it was surpassed by Walmart. It is the fifth-largest American department store company by sales as of October 2013 (behind Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and Home Depot), and it is the twelfth-largest retailer in the country overall. It operates divisions in Canada and Mexico, among several subsidiaries within its brand.
Mail order catalog
Richard Warren Sears was a railroad station agent in North Redwood, Minnesota, when he received from a Chicago jeweller an impressive shipment of watches which were unwanted by a local jeweler. Sears purchased them, then sold the watches for a considerable profit to additional station agents, then ordered more for resale. Soon he started a business selling watches through mail order catalogs. The next year, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he met Alvah C. Roebuck, who joined him in the business.
Farmers did business in small rural towns. Before the Sears catalog, farmers typically bought supplies (often at high prices and on credit) from local general stores with narrow selections of goods. Prices were negotiated, and depended on the storekeeper's estimate of a customer's creditworthiness. Sears took advantage of this by publishing catalogues offering customers a wider selection of products at clearly stated prices. The business grew quickly. The first Sears catalogue was published in 1888.
In 1893, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck renamed their watch company Sears, Roebuck & Company and began to diversify. By 1894, the Sears catalogue had grown to 322 pages, featuring sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, automobiles (produced from 1905 to 1915 by Lincoln Motor Car Works of Chicago, no relation to the current Ford line), and a host of additional new items. By 1895, the company was producing a 532-page catalog. Sales were greater than $400,000 in 1893 and more than $750,000 two years later. By 1896, dolls, stoves and groceries had been added to the catalog.
The company had sales of $800,000 in 1895, but the national Panic of 1893—a full scale depression—caused a cash squeeze and large quantities of unsold merchandise. Roebuck decided to quit (though he later returned in a publicity role). Sears offered Roebuck's half of the company to Chicago businessman Aaron Nusbaum, who in turn brought in his brother-in-law Julius Rosenwald, to whom Sears owed money. In August 1895, they bought Roebuck's half of the company for $75,000. The new Sears, Roebuck and Company was re-incorporated in Illinois with a capital stock of $150,000 in August 1895.
The transaction was handled by Albert Henry Loeb of the Chicago Law Firm of Loeb & Adler (now known as Arnstein & Lehr, LLP). Copies of the transaction documents are now displayed on the walls of the Law Firm. Sears and Rosenwald got along well with each other, but not with Nusbaum. Sears and Rosenwald bought him out for $1.3 million in 1903. Rosenwald brought to the mail order firm a rational management philosophy and diversified product lines: dry goods, consumer durables, drugs, hardware, furniture, and nearly anything else a farm household could desire. From 1895 to 1907, under Rosenwald's leadership as Vice President and Treasurer, annual sales of the company climbed from $750,000 to upwards of $50 million.
The prosperity of the company and their vision for greater expansion led Sears and Rosenwald to take the company public in 1906, with $40 million in stock. After Sears resigned the presidency in 1908 due to declining health, Rosenwald was named president and chairman of the board and had full control. Sears's successful 1906 initial public offering (IPO) marks the first major retail IPO in American financial history and represented a coming of age, financially, of the consumer sector.
In 1906, Sears opened its catalogue plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower in Chicago. Also, by that time, the Sears catalogue had become known in the industry as "the Consumers' Bible". In 1933, Sears issued the first of its famous Christmas catalogues known as the "Sears Wishbook", a catalogue featuring toys and gifts, separate from the annual Christmas Catalog. The catalogue additionally entered the language, particularly of rural dwellers, as a euphemism for toilet paper. From 1908 to 1940, the catalogue even included ready-to-assemble kit houses. Novelists and storey writers often portrayed the importance of the catalogue in the emotional lives of rural folk.
For children and their parents, the catalogue was a "wish book" that was eagerly flipped through. It wasn't a question of purchasing but of dreaming; they made up storeys about the lives of the models on the pages. The catalogue was a means of entertainment, though much of its magic wore off with the passing of childhood. The company was badly hurt throughout 1919-21 as a severe depression hit the nation's farms after farmers had overexpanded their holdings. To bail out the company, Rosenwald pledged $21 million of his personal wealth.
By 1922, Sears had regained financial stability. First he oversaw the design and construction of the company's first department store within Sears, Roebuck's massive 16-hectare (40-acre) headquarters complex of offices, laboratories and mail-order operations at Homan Ave. and Arthington St. on Chicago's West Side. The store opened in 1925. In 1924, Rosenwald resigned the presidency, but remained as chairman until his death in 1932; his goal was to devote more time to philanthropy.
Retail stores and diversification
The mail order market was based on rural America, with a slow-growing population and far less spending power than urban America. Rosenwald decided to shift emphasis to urban America, and brought in Robert E. Wood to take charge. The first Sears retail stores were opened in conjunction with the company's mail order offices, typically in working-class neighbourhoods far from the main shopping center. Sears was a pioneer in creating department stores that catered to men as well as women, especially with lines of hardware and building materials. It deemphasized the latest fashions in favour of practicality and durability, and allowed customers to select goods without the aid of a clerk. Its stores were oriented to motorists—set apart from existing business districts amid residential areas occupied by their target audience; had ample, free, off-street parking; and communicated a clear corporate identity. In the 1930s, the company designed fully air-conditioned, "windowless" stores whose layout was driven wholly by merchandising concerns.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Sears built a large number of urban department stores (apart from, but not far from, existing central business districts), and they overshadowed the mail-order business. Starting in the 1950s, the company expanded into suburban markets, and malls in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1959, it had formed the Homart Development Company for developing malls. Many of the company's stores have undergone major renovations or replacement after the 1980s. Sears began to diversify in the 1930s, adding Allstate Insurance Company in 1931 and placing Allstate representatives in its stores in 1934. Over the decades it established major national brands, such as Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard, Silvertone, Supertone, and Toughskins. The company became a conglomerate throughout the mid-20th century, adding Dean Witter and Coldwell Banker real estate in 1981, starting Prodigy as a joint venture with IBM in 1984, and introducing the Discover credit card in 1985. In March 2009, Sears purchased the social search engine Delver.
Sears made history in 1974 when it completed the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago. The tower became the world's tallest building upon its completion, a title it took from the former World Trade Center towers in New York. Sears moved to the new Prairie Stone Business Park in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, between 1993 and 1995. The Sears Centre is a 10,001-seat multi-purpose arena located in Hoffman Estates adjacent to the Prairie Stone campus. Even though its naming rights to the building expired in 2003 it remained the Sears Tower through early 2009. In March 2009 London-based insurer Willis Group Holdings, Ltd., was given the building's naming rights to entice the occupancy of the building. The official renaming as the Willis Tower took place on Thursday, July 16, 2009, throughout a public ceremony hosted by Willis Group Holdings.
In the 1990s, the company began divesting itself of a large number of non-retail entities, which were detrimental to the company's bottom line. Sears spun off its financial services arm which included brokerage business Dean Witter Reynolds and Discover Card. It sold its mall building subsidiary Homart to General Growth Properties in 1995. Sears later acquired hardware chain Orchard Supply Hardware in 1996 and started home improvement store The Great Indoors in 1997.
Decline and Sears Holdings
In 1993, Sears terminated its famous general merchandise catalogue because of sinking sales and profits. Sears Holdings continues to produce specialty catalogues and reintroduced a smaller version of the Holiday Wish Book in 2007. In 2003, Sears sold its retail credit card operation to Citibank. The remaining card operations were sold to JPMorgan Chase in August 2005. In 2003, Sears opened a new concept store called Sears Grand. Sears Grand stores carry everything that a regular Sears carries, and more. Sears Grand stores are about 175,000 to 225,000 square feet (16,300 to 20,900 m2). On November 17, 2004, Sears announced it was being acquired by Kmart. As a part of the acquisition, Kmart Holdings Corporation would change its name to Sears Holdings. The new corporation announced that it would continue to operate stores under both the Sears and Kmart brands. In 2005, the company began renovating a few Kmart stores and converting them to the Sears Essentials format, only to change them later to Sears Grands. Sears has spent much of 2014 and 2015 selling off portions of its balance sheet; namely Lands' End and its stake in Sears Canada. Sears Canada is one of the biggest e-commerce players in Canada, with $505 million in sales in 2015—more than Walmart and others who have begun pushing aggressively into online sales, such as Canadian Tire. Sears states that the company is looking to focus on fitting a more tech-driven retailer. Sears' CEO and top shareholder said the sell-off of key assets in the last year has given the retailer the money it needs to speed up its transformation. Sears Holdings has lost a total of $7 billion in the last four years. In part, the retailer is trying to curb losses by using a loyalty programme called Shop Your Way. Sears believes the membership scheme will be a long-term play for the company, and it will enhance repeat business and customer loyalty.
Seritage Growth Properties is the REIT spinoff of a few of the holding company’s Sears and Kmart stores. The REIT announced in October 2016 that it was terminating 17 store leases. All of the locations are associated with Kmart locations. It is estimated that as a large number of as 60 Kmart stores will be closed by year end 2016. Also in October 2016, Moody's Investor Services downgraded Sears to speculative grade liquidity rating. The speculative grade liquidity means that Sears is expected to have to rely on external financing and monetization of its alternative assets according to Moody's VP Christina Boni.
- A&E Factory Service is the newest name for Sears' longstanding on-site repair service, servicing larger items such as home appliances, electronics, and garden equipment. The A&E brand name was purchased from Montgomery Ward, which used it for their home service unit, and is a joint venture held by Whirlpool and Sears Holdings. A&E Factory Service is a network of mobile service vans with a long history of performing appliance repairs.
- Sears is a chain of department stores that are usually located in shopping malls, however, a few freestanding stores exist; they carry clothing, jewelry, home appliances, household hardware, lawn and garden supplies, lawn mowers, paint, sporting goods, automobile repair, office supplies, electronics and school supplies. Sears stores are usually multi-level. There are 793 full-size Sears stores in the United States. There are additionally 301 Sears locations in Canada and 66 in Mexico.
- Sears Grand is a chain of hypermarkets typically located away from shopping malls (with the exception of Gurnee Mills, Gurnee, Illinois, and Pittsburgh Mills, Tarentum, Pennsylvania, the latter closing in January 2015). Many Sears Grand locations are retrofit remodels of existing Kmart supercenter stores. They carry everything a Sears department store carries, plus health and beauty products, a pharmacy, toys, baby care, cleaning supplies, home décor, pet food, cards and party supplies, books, magazines, music, Little Caesars Pizza Station, movies, and a selection of groceries which is limited mostly to dry goods. Sears Grand stores range from 165,000 to 210,000 square feet (15,300 to 19,500 m2). The first Sears Grand opened at Jordan Landing in West Jordan, Utah in 2003. At 225,000 square feet (20,900 m2), the Jordan Landing store is currently the largest in the chain.
- Sears Optical is a chain of off-mall optical shops which carries all the same products and services as the optical department at regular Sears stores.
- Sears PartsDirect is a chain of lawn & garden equipment and appliance parts stores. Some locations, branded as Sears Parts and Repair Centers, feature a carry-in point for customers to bring-in merchandise which needs to be repaired, either in or out of warranty.
- Sears Portrait Studio is a full service portrait studio with locations in Sears stores and formerly standalone locations as well. It was run by CPI Corporation, until all Sears Portrait Studios ceased operations on April 6, 2013. CPI Corporation, in a statement on its website, said it closed all of its U.S. studios "after a large number of years of providing family portrait photography." The St. Louis-based company didn't explain the hasty closure, and calls to CPI went unanswered. Notwithstanding the company has struggled financially, hurt by the rise of digital photography. Sears Portrait Studio was later revived in August 2016 in a few in-store locations through an affiliation with Picture People.
- Sears Vacations is a licenced business partner of Sears Holdings, founded in February 2012 in conjunction with International Cruise & Excursions, Inc. Sears Vacations functions as an online travel agency that provides online and telephone based booking services for Sears customers through the SearsVacations.com website. Among the travel services provided Sears Vacations offers Cruises, Resorts, Hotels, Tours, Guided Vacations, Rental Cars, Airline Tickets, Shore Excursions, Vacation Rentals, and Travel Insurance.
- Sears Outlet is an outlet version of Sears department stores located in various retail locations across the United States. The stores carry new, one-of-a-kind, out of carton, discontinued, used, scratched and dented merchandise at 20–60% off regular retail price. While a wide variety of products are available, appliances make up a large majority of available merchandise. Sears Outlet stores were once known as Sears Surplus. Many former Kmarts have been converted to serve as Sears Outlets, though these often take up less than half the floorspace. Sears Outlet was part of a spin-off with Sears Hometown Stores and Sears Appliance and Hardware Stores to become Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores in September 2012. Sears Canada's 11 Outlet stores wasn't spun off and remain with the corporate owned stores in Canada (as of 2016 only 5 remain as six locations have closed).
- hardware stores that carry the whole line of Sears hardware and are usually free-standing. More than 110 Sears Appliance & Hardware stores averaging 40,000 square feet (3,700 m2) serve customers nationwide. Stores were expanded to include Sears' full line of appliances in 2005. Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores took on Sears Appliance & Hardware in a Spin-off from Sears Holdings in 2012.
- Sears Hometown Stores (formerly known as Sears Authorized Dealer Stores) is part of the retail operation of Sears Holdings and is a small-store version of Sears full-line department stores. Sears Hometown Stores, established in 1993, is a franchise formula and Sears Home Appliance Showroom, established in 2007, offers primarily appliances. The stores are located away from shopping malls and serve local communities across the United States and Puerto Rico. Sears Hometown Stores was part of a spin-off with Sears Outlet and Sears Appliance and Hardware in September 2012.
- Lands' End, Lands' End is a publicly traded clothing and home-goods producer and retailer, specialising in kids clothing, uniforms, and customised workplace products. Sears officially spun off Lands' End in April 2014 amid continuing financial distress, including a $1.4 billion loss in 2013.
- Sears Essentials was a chain of discount stores that were common retrofit remodels of existing Kmart stores. Their product lines were similar to that of Sears Grand stores. In 2006, Sears dropped the brand as it tried to turn Kmart stores into free standing Sears stores. Most of 50 buildings bearing its name were turned into Sears Grand Stores or reverted to Kmarts.
- National Tire and Battery (NTB) & National Tire Warehouse (NTW) is an American brand of auto service centers. It was formerly owned by Sears until it was spun off in 2003. Sears created the brand in 1997 by consolidating the Tire America (TA) and National Tire Warehouse (NTW) brands, adding the "B" to include its DieHard brand of batteries. Sears sold the brand, which consisted mostly of stores set apart from its name brand stores, in 2003 to TBC Corporation. A Sears spokesman said "Because of the separate branding and the lack of proximity to our retail operations, we weren't able to drive growth like a TBC could". The chain of 226 stores was reported to have brought in $425 million in revenue and $60 million in profit in 2002.
- Sears Brand Central was an electronics store. The appliances departments in Sears are now known and referred to internally as Brand Central, although they aren't marketed to consumers as such, except for a few locations in Puerto Rico.
- Sears Catalog Sales Stores were located in small towns. These stores were quite small, even smaller than Sears' current Hometown Dealer stores. At catalogue stores, a few items can be ordered from the floor, such as appliances; additional items can be ordered from catalogues at the store. These stores were often placed in rural markets which were far from full-line Sears stores, allowing for customers to purchase Sears products more easily. These stores were closed in 1993 when Sears closed its catalogue business.
- Sears Authorized Catalog Sales Merchant was an independent business person who provided a large number of of the same services as the Sears Catalog Sales Store. Similar operations are additionally found in Canada with Sears Canada.
- Sears Appliance Stores were small stores that displayed and sold (at Retail Store prices) appliances, carpeting, etc. and, in addition, provided a catalogue sales department through which catalogue items can be ordered. Sears Holdings has opened a Sears Appliances store in Colorado in 2016 with plans to add more throughout the country.
- Sears Rent-a-Car was a car rental chain formed in a joint venture with Budget. It was sold to Avis in 2002.
- Sears HomeLife was a chain of furniture stores owned by Sears. The concept was introduced at a mall in Fresno, California in 1989, followed by a stand-alone store in Madison, Wisconsin. Sears sold the stores to Citicorp Venture in 1999, who changed the chain's name to just "HomeLife". They opened a large number of locations inside large Sears stores or near the store depending on space available. HomeLife closed its last stores in 2001. In Puerto Rico, a few HomeLife locations are still present.
- Sears Neighborhood was a chain similar to Sears Hometown stores, except that Neighborhood stores were located in urban markets. These stores were additionally independently owned and operated. The concept was introduced in Atlanta in 1998, and another similar store was located in Cincinnati. The Neighborhood stores closed in the early 2000s.
- The Great Indoors was a chain of free-standing home decor stores that carry high-end home appliances, bedding, and kitchen and bath fixtures. The Great Indoors additionally offered custom kitchen and bathroom design services. Sears Holdings announced the closing of all remaining stores in 2012.
- Orchard Supply Hardware is a chain of free-standing hardware stores that carry home repair, hardware products and lawn and garden supplies. It was spun off from Sears in January 2012.
- Allstate – Automobiles, motorcycles and mopeds, vehicle parts and insurance
- Alphaline Entertainment – Video-on-demand
- Celestial Star – Diamond jewelry
- Challenge Records
- Cheryl Tiegs – Clothing
- Coldspot – Appliances
- Companion – Tools
- Conqueror Records
- Covington - Clothing
- Craftsman – Tools
- Dashmate Automobile Radios & Tape players
- David Bradley – Farm machinery
- Dean Witter Reynolds - Financial services
- DieHard – Batteries
- Discover Card – Credit card
- Dunlap – Tools
- Easy Living – Painting equipment
- Economy – Iceboxes, fountain pens, sewing machine cabinets, petrol engines, portable saw rigs, variety of farm equipment, cream separators
- Evolv – A do-it-yourself line of tools marketed with eco-friendly green packaging
- Free Spirit – Bicycles
- Gold Bond – Footwear
- Goolagong - Clothing
- Harmony House – Interior decorating products
- Hearthside – Rug looms and quilting frames
- Hercules – Work clothing, appliances, insurance, sewage systems, letterman's jackets, fire extinguishers, heavy-duty coveralls, and home heating systems
- Hillary - Camping and outdoor gear
- Homart – Heating and cooling systems, plumbing supplies, electrical supplies, kitchen cabinets, building supplies
- J. C. Higgins – Sporting goods, camping
- Kenmore – Appliances
- Kromedge – Sawblades, dadoes, mouldering heads, router bits
- Penske – Automotive testing tools
- Permanex – Blow-molded polyethylene tool storage cases, gas cans
- Pilgrim – Clothing
- Roebucks – Clothing
- Sears Video Arcade - In-house version of Atari in the early 1980s; discontinued in favour of the actual Atari systems
- Silvertone – Stereos, televisions, musical instruments
- Silvertone Records
- Supertone Records
- Ted Williams Brand – Sporting goods
- Toughskins – Clothing
- Tower – Cameras, photo supplies, office equipment
- Weatherbeater – Painting equipment
Sears has struggled with employee relations. One notable example was the shift in 1992 from an hourly wage based on longevity to a base wage (usually between $3.50 and $6 per hour) and commissions ranging from 0.5% to 11%. Sears claimed the new base wage, often constituting a substantial (up to 40%) cut in pay, was done "to be successful in this highly competitive environment."
In early October 2007, Sears cut commission rates for employees in select departments to anywhere from 0.5% to four percent but equalised the base wage across all Home Improvement and Electronics departments. In 2011, commission rates on non-base items were cut by two percent in the electronics department. In late 2009, the commission on sales of "base items" from the electronic department was cut to 1%. Appliances, vacuums, and mattresses are the only remaining departments where compensation is based entirely on commission. In a large number of stores, jewellery department associates receive a low base salary with one percent commission on their sales.
Sears' profits dropped by thirteen percent throughout the fourth quarter of 2010 but still had total assets of $26.05 billion as of the first quarter of 2011.