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From revolutionizing warehousing to launching the Discover Card, Sears was the Amazon of its day

The world's biggest retailer developed the world's tallest building, mastered store design, and launched a credit card empire.
Image: Sears
Shoppers exit a Sears Holdings Corp. store in Montebello, California, on Oct. 10, 2018.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sears, the 125-year-old store where shoppers could find everything from wedding rings to wrenches, filed for bankruptcy on Monday in New York.

The original “everything” store, which was in many ways the brick and mortar precursor to Amazon, plans to close 142 unprofitable stores by the end of the year.

Sears joins a long list of other retailers, including Toys R Us and Mattress Firm, that have filed for bankruptcy this year after losing out to Amazon and other online stores.

But in many ways, the Sears bankruptcy is the end of an era that spanned multiple generations. Beginning long before shopping malls and Amazon, here’s a look at how Sears changed the way Americans shopped.

1886 — Richard Sears begins selling watches at a railroad station

At age 22, Sears, who was working as a railroad station agent in North Redwood, Minnesota, began selling watches to fellow agents as a way to supplement his income.

1886 — Mail order business, the Amazon of its time

Within six months, Sears’ watch business was booming. He quit his job at the station and moved to Minneapolis, where he started the R.W. Sears Watch Company, expanding his clientele through a mail order business, the late 19th century equivalent of online shopping.

1893 — Sears, Roebuck, and Co. is formed in Chicago

How does a watch salesman expand his business? By hiring someone who can repair watches. Sears and Alvah Roebuck, a watchmaker, connected through a newspaper ad in 1887. In 1893, they made their business partnership official by launching Sears, Roebuck, and Co.

1906 — The first major retailer to go public

Not only could shoppers buy from Sears, but they could now invest in the company. Sears was the first major U.S. retailer to go public, raising $40 million. That was 1906. On Monday, 112 years later, Sears’ value was hovering around $44 million.

1906 — The largest building in the world

Fulfilling all of those orders required a lot of space. In 1906, Sears opened a 3-million square foot mail order plant in Chicago, which the company said at the time was the largest business building in the world. That year, Sears also opened an office in Dallas, which would become a second mail order plant, offering customers in the southwest the added bonus of lower freight rates, receiving their items faster, and reducing the likelihood they were damaged in transit. This was a century before Amazon Prime launched the consumer expectation of receiving their items in two days.

Early 1900s — Revolutionizing the warehouse

Imagine ordering one item and receiving it in the mail five times. It was an occasional occurrence, according to Sears’ company archives. They decided to fix the problem with a time scheduling system. When an order arrived, it was assigned a time to be shipped. Traveling through a system of belts and chutes, the order had to be in its appropriate bin in the merchandise-assembly room at its designated time. The system brought much-needed order to the Chicago plant and by one expert’s account at the time, allowed Sears to handle 10 times more business.

Image: Sears catalog
The famous Sears and Roebuck catalog, circa 1942.George Karger/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images / The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

1925 — The famous catalog

The Sears catalog had become known as the consumer Bible, tipping the scales at more than 500 pages. But in 1925, customers got to see that catalog come to life by visiting the first Sears store on Chicago’s west side. Before the end of the year, Sears opened seven more locations.

1927 — The Craftsman tool brand

Sears launched its Craftsman tool brand, furthering its reputation as the “everything” store. By the end of the year, it was operating more than two dozen brick and mortar locations. Sears sold Craftsman in 2017 to Stanley Black & Decker.

1935 — Intelligent store design

The company began a retail strategy of building its stores around its floor plans, planning where merchandise would go, the fixtures and the width of the aisles before building the actual structure. The first store built from the “inside out” was in Glendale, California in 1935.

Image: Sears
Sears, Roebuck and Co in El Paso, Texas circa 1940.Fotosearch / Getty Images

Early 1930s — The launch of Allstate Insurance

In their quest to deliver just about everything a family needed, Sears created Allstate Insurance. When management discovered the policies were mostly only selling in small towns, where the catalog business was popular, they decided to open Allstate outlets in their brick and mortar locations.

1973 — The Sears Tower, the world's tallest building

When the company's headquarters was completed in 1973, it became the world's tallest building and a Chicago landmark. The Sears Tower, which stands 1,454 feet, was sold in 1994 and is now known by another name, The Willis Tower. It was sold again in 2015 to the Blackstone Group for a reported $1.3 billion.

1985 — The Discover Card debuts

The economy was booming and so was retail. Sears bolstered its financial services business in 1985 with the Discover Card, giving customers the option of “putting it on the plastic.”

2005 — Joining forces with Kmart

In a quest to compete with Walmart and other big box retailers, Kmart bought Sears for $11 billion. Many Sears stores, which had long been a traditional anchor store at shopping malls, were closed in favor of transforming some existing Kmart locations with the Sears store concept. However, both chains continued to struggle. Together, the brands once operated more than 3,500 locations in the United States. That total is now in the low hundreds.

2000 — A new concept: Shopping online

Long before Amazon asserted its dominance and before online shopping became something most Americans were comfortable with, Sears launched a “major expansion” of its online business in 2000. In 2014, then-Chief Executive Officer Eddie Lampert announced Sears would close its flagship Chicago store as it moved to online retail, a space dominated by Amazon and Walmart.