The most impressive statement to make about Sears as it seeks bankruptcy court protection is also the most damning: Sears was the Amazon of its time.
Impressive because Sears really was that influential long ago. Damning because the company’s decline wasn’t preordained. Sears could have maintained pre-eminence and, in the digital era, elbowed out Amazon and other retailers. Some companies do preserve and build on success through reinvention. Look at McDonald’s, to choose another great Chicago-area company that has survived challenges and remains the iconic name in its industry.
On Sunday, Sears filed for bankruptcy protection. The company’s future now likely rests with outsiders, including its creditors and a federal judge.
The dominance Sears squandered is breathtaking to consider. Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck founded the company in 1893 to sell watches by mail. As recently as the 1960s, Sears was known as the “colossus” and “paragon” of American retailing. By 1972, 2 of 3 Americans shopped at Sears in any three-month period, and more than half of households had a Sears credit card, according to “The Big Store,” an engaging 1987 biography of the company by Donald R. Katz.
Parallels to Amazon are uncanny: Almost 2 of 3 U.S. adults purchased something via Amazon in a three-month period in 2017, according to market researcher Packaged Facts.
The question of what befell Sears isn’t hard to answer. It was internal attitude as much as external forces. Katz’s book explored the hubris and insularity of a behemoth that couldn’t imagine being usurped and thus didn’t anticipate the rise of mall competition or discounters or, eventually, the internet. “Sears doesn’t have competition save ourselves,” one company executive quoted in “The Big Store” said in 1975. “Sears is number one, two, three and four.”
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE