What Would Richard Sears Have Thought Of The Internet?

(originally posted on Wednesday, March 10, 2010)

Last night CNBC ran a terrific biography on Sears, Roebuck and Co. This all-American company began as the farmer’s alternative to the high prices at their local general store, by offering lower prices on everything they’d ever need from Sears’ 500-page mail order catalog.

The first Sears catalog was published in 1888 and by 1906 it was considered “the consumers bible”, selling everything from clothes, refrigerators, stoves and groceries, to sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, automobiles, and even houses.

Virtually everything a consumer needed could be found in the Sears catalog, and the mail-order business thrived for decades. Most people don’t realize that Sears, Roebuck and Company didn’t open up their first brick-and-mortar store until 1925, by which time they were already the largest retailer in the world.

What is fascinating to think about is that Sears’ business started out as sort of the “dot-com” of its era. No storefront, no salespeople, just a catalog that showed up in the mail that offered everything you could ever want. And the merchandise was shipped right to your door.

There was no internet, Facebook, Twitter, or viral videos—there wasn’t even radio when the first Sears catalog came out. But it was an immediate success because Richard Sears built his business on some very basic principals: offer the customer anything they could want, at a price they can afford, and make it easy for them to get their merchandise. Add to that a money back guarantee and the best possible customer service (via postal correspondence!), and Sears was able to retain customers and boost their loyalty for generations.

Sears didn’t start out with a brand concept or a media plan or a Twitter strategy. He started out with a great idea, and the business spread “virally” by word of mouth. From farmer to farmer, the catalog was borrowed, browsed, and ordered from. And every new order added a new family’s name and address to the Sears “database” (they called it a customer list back then—how quaint!).

The point we are making is this: e-commerce, social media, email, mobile apps, and viral videos are great, modern marketing vehicles. But they are not ideas. Everything Richard Sears did in the 1880s is exactly the same thing marketers should be doing today. The only difference is how the marketing message gets delivered.