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Fast facts

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.

Early 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.

 

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