Sears: The Rise & Fall of the Nation’s Once-Largest Retail Store

Authored by Raquel Guarino

Check this out. This 90s era Sears commercial recently made the rounds of the internet as a quirky blast from the past. The exaggerated sweat, the silly dilemma of the husband not calling in a repair (why couldn’t the wife do it?), and the pixelated quality of the commercial all harken back to a simpler time when Sears was in a better place. While the big box retailer is technically still around, according to the latest news, its future is looking grim.


A Troubled Past

The company has been struggling to stay afloat for a while now. Its last year of profit was in 2010. As of this week, the retailer fell to a new low, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after failing to pay a $134 million debt payment.

Having faced nearly a decade of ongoing financial troubles, the move comes as little surprise. The company struggled to stay afloat with the popularity of stores like Target, Walmart, and Home Depot in the 90s and 00s. The chains undercut Sears’ prices and grew quickly across the country, making them more convenient and competitive. In 2009, Sears’ sales were crushed even harder by the Great Recession. Customers steered away from buying big-ticket items such as washing machines, refrigerators, and lawn mowers because they simply couldn’t afford them. In its place, more people turned to the internet, eventually giving way to the rise of companies like Amazon.


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Company Missteps

But not all of Sears’ failures can be blamed on outside circumstances. Experts say that certain corporate strategies set the historic retailer up for failure. Rather than innovating alongside its competitors, Sears cut costs by closing stores and selling off property. CNN reports that the retailer did little to invest in advertising; instead, the company slashed spending on marketing and advertising in an attempt to get ahead.

Additionally, Sears Holdings Corporation (which owns both Sears and Kmart) did not invest in maintenance and upkeep of its stores, while its competitors continued to change and modernize. Eventually, certain vendors like Whirlpool lost faith in the company, leaving shelves empty and making the oversized stores feel even more vacant–a ghost of its former self.


The Golden Years

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Sears was once the largest retail store in the country–its prominence thanks to a strategy of prioritizing customers and understanding their needs.

Founded in the late 1800s, Sears’ mail-order catalogue revolutionized the way Americans bought goods. CNN says the catalogue “was the way many Americans first started to buy mass-produced goods.” Ordering items by mail made shopping accessible to those living in rural areas and in small towns, where people generally made things instead of purchasing them.

Decades later, Sears helped create another major cultural shift, pulling shoppers away from “Main Street” stores and into malls, which experts say “contributed to the suburbanization of America in the post-World War II era.” Adding to this shift were Sears’ Kenmore appliances, which saved time and reduced at-home labor, giving families more time to spend recreationally.


Lessons Learned

So what can businesses take away from Sears’ legacy and downfall? Here’s the main lesson: companies should be constantly working to understand where there customers are, their behaviors, and how all of that can be improved upon.

Sears got that right in the beginning. In fact, not only were they cognizant of current shoppers’ behaviors, but they correctly anticipated the needs of potential customers in rural America as well. Where Sears fell flat was with complacency (relying on its name instead of advertising and refusing to invest in modernization). That, combined with a failure to understand how to shift its business model to cater to online shopping, ultimately led to the company’s demise.


Wondering what you can do to avoid a similar fate?’s multichannel customer service platform makes it easy to stay connected to current and potential customers wherever they are.

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