Opening Retail Stores
In 1906 Sears wrote:
"We do comparatively very little business in
cities, and we assume the cities are not at all our
field - maybe they are not - but I think it is our duty
to prove they are not "
Nineteen years later, the time came for Sears, Roebuck
and Co. to prove that cities were its field. The man who
proved it was Robert E. Wood, then a Sears vice president
later to become president and board chairman. At Sears, he
garnered fame as the father of Sears retail expansion.
There were several reasons why Wood crusaded for Sears
to open retail stores. For one thing, chain stores were
beginning to blanket the country and cut into Sears
mail-order business. In 1914 there were about 24,000 chain
stores. Fifteen years later there were more than 150,000.
The whole face of the country was changing. With cars
and modern roads, Sears rural customers were no longer
limited to shopping by catalog. Just as important,
American cities were growing up, and Sears rural customers
were abandoning the farm for the factory. In 1900 rural
population still outnumbered the urban population. By 1920
the situation was reversed.
City dwellers, Wood reasoned, weren't good catalog
customers. They shopped in city stores. Unless Sears
opened stores of its own, it would end up serving only a
small fraction of the total American buying public. As
soon as he was on the job, Wood moved.
in 1925, he experimented with one store located in the
Chicago mail-order plant. It was an immediate success.
Before the year was out he opened seven more retail
stores, four of them in mail-order plants. By the end of
1927 he had 27 stores in operation.
The retail operation grew to 192 stores in 1928, to 319
stores in 1929 and to 400 stores in 1933. During one
12-month period in the late 20's, stores opened on the
average of one every other business day. When two huge
stores opened in one city on the same day, more than
120,000 people visited them during the first 12 hours they
were open. As one authority put it, "Leases can't be
signed fast enough, stores can't be readied fast enough,
personnel can't be hired fast enough."
The principle of Sears buying began to change in the
late 1920s. Some mail-order merchandise already was being
sold under Sears own trade names. And with the opening of
more and more retail stores, volume in these and other
lines grew rapidly. With this growth, Sears buyers were
able to develop exclusively different items to be sold
under Sears brand names. This was the beginning of such
names as Craftsman, Kenmore and DieHard.
In 1931 Sears retail sales topped mail-order sales for
the first time. Stores accounted for 53.4 percent of total
sales of more than $180 million. Despite the Depression,
Sears continued to open stores during the 1930s. When war
broke out in 1941, more than 600 stores were operating.
World War II called a halt to Sears retail expansion and
even forced several stores to close. After the war,
however, Wood resumed his expansion program.