Sears first free standing retail store opened
October 5, 1925 in Evansville, Indiana
In 1925, Sears Chairman Julius Rosenwald decided to expand
Sears operations into the retail store business. At first Sears
opened retail stores in the large regional Catalog Merchandise
Distribution Centers at Chicago, Dallas, Seattle and Kansas
City. The very first Sears retail store outside of a Catalog
Merchandise Distribution Center opened in Evansville, Indiana on
October 5, 1925. Moving into the retail store business was not
an easy task for Sears, Roebuck and Co., the largest mail order
catalog company in the United States.
Julius Rosenwald started the process when he hired Charles
Kittle as the new president of Sears and Robert Wood as the new
vice president of factories and retail stores. Wood previously
worked for Montgomery Wards where he tried to get Wards to start
opening retail stores. Wards management was skeptical of the
idea and decided not to go into the retail store business. After
Wood resigned from Montgomery Wards over their lack of
commitment to opening retail stores, Rosenwald quickly hired
Many people at Sears were not convinced that opening retail
stores was a good thing. The greatest fear many Sears managers
had was that the stores would take business away from the
company’s profitable catalog operations. Rosenwald, Kittle and
Wood believed that the urban farm population would continue to
order from the Sears catalog. They also believed that city
dwellers were more interested in shopping at stores than buying
goods through the mail order catalog.
The time was right for the company to start opening retail
stores. The population in the United States was migrating from
rural farms to cities. The root of this shift was an increase in
labor saving mechanical technology on the farms. At the same
time new factories were being built in the cities. These
factories produced a wide variety of new consumer products that
included radios, electric appliances, power tools, and man made
wash and wear fabrics.
Under Rosenwald, Kittle and Wood, Sears redefined the retail
store concept. The strategy these men developed turned the Sears
retail store into a new kind of department store, a place for
the whole family to shop. As Robert Wood put it:
The (existing) department stores were essentially for
women. Eighty percent of their business was in women’s
wear, hosiery, and all other apparel. A man in a department
store was lost. We made it a store for the family; in other
words, for the men, too. We added hardware, tires, service
parts and other items of particular interest to men.
Finding the right product mix was not as difficult as
creating an organizational structure that made the retail store
system work, and finding qualified people to run the new stores.
Turning catalog sales people into retail sales people was a very
difficult task. As Wood put it, "We were as green as grass
in passing the goods across the counter—and we made many
mistakes. But the concept was sound. We gave people values. In
spite of our mistakes, they kept coming and the store was a
success from the day we opened."
Sears management struggled with creating a new Sears retail
store system that took advantage of the existing catalog buying
and distribution organization. After Kittle died suddenly in
1928, and Rosenwald retired in 1932 Wood took over as president
of Sears. Wood completely redefined Sears. He created a whole
new organizational structure to run the retail stores. The new
field organization was based on managerial decentralization.
Wood delegated responsibility and authority as far down the line
as possible. He wanted well-qualified people in key posts at the
scene of action. He gave the field people wide latitude to
exercise initiative and judgement in light of local
Things were rough at first. The lack of skilled retail
management was a serious problem for Sears. Wood persevered, he
encouraged hiring people with potential and promoting them to
management positions. Soon, a highly qualified group of retail
During the first fifteen years of the Sears retail
experience, Wood spent a great deal of time visiting the stores.
He wanted to know first hand what kinds of problems the stores
faced and what changes to make in company policies and practices
to enable them to do a better job.
It took nearly two decades of hard work to establish an
efficient field organization. The success of the retail business
at Sears was reflected in the skyrocketing sales figures for the
company during the coming decades.