How the Sears Catalog Captured America's Imagination

Mail was the internet before the internet. The mail-order firms like Sears were able to penetrate underserved rural areas by leaning on the then-new infrastructures, such as the railroads that linked far-flung regions of the country. 

One of the first mail-order launched in 1872, sixteen years before the famous Sears catalog, was Montgomery Ward. Aaron Montgomery Ward conceived of the idea of dry goods mail-order business in Chicago, Illinois, after he observed that rural customers often wanted "city" goods. The first catalog consisted of an 8 in × 12 in (20 cm × 30 cm) single-sheet price list, listing 163 items for sale with ordering instructions for which Ward had written the copy. By 1883, the company's catalog, which became popularly known as the "Wish Book", had grown to 240 pages and 10,000 items. 

In 1888, Richard Wareen Sears started a business selling watches through mail order catalogs. The Sears catalog was the first serious competition that Wards encountered. 

Sears has a penchant for marketing. One such story of his genius is of how he designed the Sears catalog. Apart from the clever copywriting, Sears made his catalog shorter than the Montgomery Ward catalog. Knowing that many households would have both his catalog and the Montgomery Ward catalog, he hypothesized that while tidying up the home, the Sears catalog, being smaller, would be stacked on top of the Wards catalog.


Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog, 1918

This and many such keen steps taken by Sears ensured his phenomenal success. The book Sears Roebuck and Company: 100th Anniversary relates that once a Sunday School pupil was asked,”Where did the Ten Commandments come from?” The child innocently replied, “From the Sears, Roebuck catalog.”


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