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Fast facts

Sears Settles in Chicago

Sears business expanded fast. So fast, in fact that the company soon outgrew its rented five-story building. In 1896 Sears moved to a new six-story-and-basement building. By the turn of the century, additional buildings were built or leased in various areas of Chicago. Meanwhile, construction was started on a 40-acre, $5 million mail-order plant and office building on Chicago's West Side. When opened in 1906, the mail-order plant, with more than 3 million square feet of floor space, was the largest business building in the world.

In 1906, Sears opened an office in Dallas, Texas, which six years later blossomed into a mail-order plant. This plant offered the Southwest such advantages as lower freight rates, faster delivery and reduced damage to merchandise. Sears wrote:

"If with this trial we can get any success, the next place will get the kind of preparation that will insure success, and encourage us to cover the United States rapidly with 10 or more branches..."

Building mail-order plants was one thing. Making them operate efficiently was something else. Around the turn of the century a customer complained:

For heaven's sake, quit sending me sewing machines. Every time I go to the station I find another one there. You have shipped me five already.

Sears mail-order executives knew of these problems and were as unhappy as the customers about them. After much experimenting, they introduced a time schedule. Under it, each order, as it arrived, was given a time to be shipped. Then no matter what happened, the order had to be in the appropriate bin in the merchandise-assembly room at the assigned time. It traveled to the room by an intricate system of belts and chutes.

The time-scheduling system brought order to mail order, enabling the Chicago plant, according to one expert, to handle 10 times the business it handled before the system was introduced. Before long, the system became a sort of "seventh wonder" of the business world. Henry Ford is reported to have visited the Chicago plant to study the assembly-line technique used in the system.

While some executives were perfecting the scheduling system, others were involved with other projects. Fanciful catalog writing started by Sears became far less fanciful. What's more, buyers began looking beyond price tags to the quality of the good they were buying. The change in the catalog from the flamboyant to the factual appears to have started by the turn of the century, although Richard Sears' influence continued for some time after. One Sears authority says the change to factual catalog writing came out of day-to-day decisions. Hundreds of decisions about copy on specific products added up to a factually written catalog.

Not only did copy improve, but some products such as patent medicines were dropped. The 1912 catalog devoted one less page to patent medicines than the 1911 catalog. The 1913 catalog came out solidly against home remedies under the banner line "Why We Have Discontinued Patent Medicines." The improvement in the quality of Sears goods goes hand in hand with the story of Sears laboratory. As early as 1905 the company began insisting not only on accurate catalog descriptions but also on quality merchandise.

The first laboratory opened in 1911 and, in time, became known as the "watchdog of the catalog" suggesting minimum standards for some products spot-testing mail-order plant merchandise conducting scientific comparisons between Sears and competitors' products.

The Sears catalog has had a varied and interesting career. In the old days it sold "heavyweight, nice soft-finish, black" wool cheviot coats for $4.98; men's suits for $9.95. It sold a "Stradivarius model violin" for $6.10 and an $8 brass banquet lamp for $2.30. The catalog, on occasion, was given away free; on other occasions it cost as much as 50 cents.

Famous in catalog history is the plan Richard Sears used to put his wish books into the hands of thousands of potential new customers. In 1905 Sears wrote to the company's best customers in Iowa, asking each to distribute 24 catalogs among friends and neighbors. These customers sent Sears the names of people who received the catalogs. When these people, in turn, sent in orders, the original customers received premiums for their work: a stove, a bicycle or a sewing machine. With success in Iowa, the system was applied in other states.

 

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