The story behind the man who paved the way for Sears
Tuesday, January 14, 2014 2:14 AM
Here in Spring Valley we often boast that Richard Sears of Sears & Roebuck fame received all his education at the Spring Valley schools. However, it is sobering to learn that he learned many of his marketing techniques from his predecessor, Aaron Montgomery Ward, who founded his firm years earlier.
Items from the 1934 Montgomery Ward catalog — can you believe those prices? Remember, satisfaction was guaranteed or your money back.
Aaron Montgomery Ward (1843-1913) was part of a large family that originated in New Jersey. The family moved to Michigan where, at age 14, Ward was apprenticed to help support his siblings, earning 25 cents a day cutting staves at a barrel factory. He learned retailing as a shoe salesman, working his way "up" to even as much as $100 a month plus board. He worked at many jobs including a dry goods salesman for a Chicago firm, selling to rural customers. After long hours and difficult circumstances, he realized a far better way was to establish a direct mail service to country folks. He lacked capital and his friends thought he was crazy. His first meager inventory was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, but he persevered and in 1872 founded Montgomery Ward & Co. with two employees and the sum of $1,600.
Ward rented space for headquarters, thus beginning the first mail order catalog business with 163 products available in 1880. Although his partners left after a year, he was soon joined by his future brother-in-law, George Thorne, and the business began to prosper. Difficult times were ahead as rural businesses considered him a threat (which he was), and often staged catalog burning events. However, the customers were attracted by the wide variety of goods and the "guarantee of satisfaction or your money back." His use of installment payments made it much easier for folks to buy more expensive items, and Sears later used both these for promotion.
The firm became very popular in the Chicago area as Ward championed causes for common folks, especially the establishment of the Grant Park area along Lake Michigan. It is still preserved under legislation during his lifetime, a remarkable legacy.
By 1883 the catalog, dubbed The Wish Book, had grown to 240 pages and 10,000 items. Ward's first competition showed up when Richard Sears introduced his first catalog. Both Ward and Sears wrote all their own copy for their catalogs, quite an achievement. By 1900 the firms were in serious competition and fought for dominance; Ward tallying 8.7 million in sales to 10 million for Sears. Ward, in 1904, mailed 3 million catalogs, each weighing four pounds.
Ward built an enormous headquarters along the river, which remained company headquarters until 1974. It was 1926 when Ward opened its first retail stores and by 1924, had over 500 retail outlets. During the Depression, they lost money, but in 1930 they turned down a merger offer from Sears.
One truly bright spot: Staff writer Robert May created "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in 1939, as part of a Christmas promotion. Six million copies of the story book were sold in 1946, popularized by Gene Autry, a song and reindeer we still hear and see during the season.
The firm began a gradual decline in the 1940s. The president dealt poorly with a nation-wide labor strike, ignored the union and President Roosevelt's order to settle the strike. Lack of shrewd management plagued the company, causing a slowdown, and in the 1960s the company was sold and re-sold. By 1985 the company closed its 113 year old catalog business. The years following were rife with bankruptcy, restructuring and finally liquidation. December 2000 came the announcement: Montgomery Ward was going out of business. It would close 250 outlets and lay off 35,000 employees. It was the largest retail liquidation in U.S. history. All of Montgomery Ward was gone by May 2001. Four of its massive distribution centers built by Ward from 1921 to 1929 remain, and are being re-used. The St. Paul center employed 2,500; it had more than one million square feet on 27 acres under one roof the largest building in St. Paul at the time. The site was re-developed as a shopping center known as Midway Market Plaza.
Sears? Richard Sears produced his first catalog in 1888. Alvah Roebuck joined the partnership and by 1894 they had a 322 page catalog offering quality products at reasonable rates. By 1906 the catalog was known as The Consumers' Bible. In the 1930s, the catalog was called Sear's Wishbook, and the company began to diversify with all kinds of operations. The Sears Tower was built about 1973, 108 stories, the tallest building in the world until 1998.
By 1980 Sears was called the largest retailer in the country, but by 1989, Walmart took that title. In 2010 there were reported to be 2,248 outlets, and two years later, Sears was still the 12th largest retailer in the United States. But times change as we all know. Will Sears really close their doors at Apache Mall this year??