The Rise and Fall of Sears: A Timeline From Its Founding to Its Bankruptcy
Sears Holdings Corp. filed for bankruptcy court protection Monday, a grim development for a company with an illustrious, 132-year history in American business. While recent generations have abandoned or entirely avoided Sears stores, the company was an early innovator in U.S. retail, a godsend to heartland shoppers a century ago, and arguably a more dominant force in the retail industry than Amazon is today.
Here is a look back at the timeline of Sears’ dramatic rise and fall.
1866: Richard Sears, entrepreneurial station agent
Richard Sears, who was born into a wealthy Minnesota family that lost its fortune in a speculative stock deal, was working as a station agent in 1866 when he began selling watches in a side business named “R.W. Sears Watch Co.” Sears meets a watch repairman named Alvah Roebuck, and together they expand the company into selling diamonds and jewelry.
1893: The founding of a retail giant
After selling the first business, Sears moves to Chicago in 1892 and establishes a second mail-order company, renaming it Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1893. The catalog business offers a much larger inventory and lower prices than rural shoppers are used to paying in local general stores.
1906: An IPO and a new plant
Sears listed shares in a public offering in 1906, the same year that it opened a catalog plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower, the first building in what would become a huge, 40-acre office complex. Richard Sears would step down as president the following year due to declining health. He died in 1914. Goldman Sachs managed the Sears’ IPO.
1925: The first Sears retail store opens
On the west side of Chicago, Sears opens its first retail store inside a mail-order plant, including an optical shop and a soda fountain. Meanwhile, the Sears catalog, sometimes known to all customers as the “wish book,” would eventually grow as large as 1,000 pages. By 1930, Sears would operate 300 retail outlets.
1927: Sears launches its in-house brands
Sears pays $500 for the rights to the Craftsman brand in 1927, which would become known for high-quality tools. The Kenmore name begins appearing on washing machines the same year. The two brands would join Allstate, DieHard, and Toughskins as brand names familiar to Sears customers over the decades.
1973: The name on the world’s tallest building
Sears completes the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago, moving its headquarters for the first time in a half-century. In the interim, Sears has expanded into countries like Mexico, while becoming a flagship retailer in malls across the U.S.
1981: Diversification and peak performance
Sears expands into financial services in 1981 by buying stockbroker Dean Witter Reynolds and real estate company Coldwell Banker. During the next two years, Sears would introduce the Discover credit card and partner with IBM on Prodigy, one of the earliest online services.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Sears’ annual revenue would reach about 1% of U.S. gross domestic product. By comparison, Amazon’s $99 billion revenue last year (excluding AWS) would equal about 0.8% of U.S. GDP.
1989: The era of cost cutting begins
Competition from other department stores, as well as discount retailers like Kmart and Walmart, forces Sears to start slashing prices on its inventory and take other measures, such as exploring a sale of the Sears Tower and shuttering its founding catalog business. Sears would eventually spin off parts of Allstate and Dean Witter, while divesting itself of Discover, Coldwell Banker, and Prodigy. In 1990, Walmart surpassed Sears as the largest U.S. retailer.
2005: A billionaire investor takes over
Hedge-fund investor Eddie Lampert buys control of Sears for $11 billion in 2005, after having built up a 15% stake in the company. As part of the deal, Sears merges with Kmart, which Lampert bought out of bankruptcy two years earlier.
2011: The beginning of the end
After several years of profitability, Sears begins posting losses that would escalate in time into something of a downward spiral. Sears never made the transition from an essential shopping catalog to an online retailer, ceding ground to Amazon and forcing the company to shutter store after store, lay off workers, and sell off still viable brands like Craftsman.
After warning investors in 2017 of “substantial doubt” about remaining a going concern, Sears files for bankruptcy on October 15, 2018. Lampert stepped down as CEO but will remain chairman.