By Tom Stangl

From the publisher’s desk

Earlier this month former retail giant Sears filed for bankruptcy protection with the federal courts. 

It is the latest turn of events for a retail giant that disrupted retail trends for over a century and has been portrayed by some as the inevitable end of brick and mortar retailing in the 21st century.

The story of Sears is an American success story, even if the end is not what anyone had hoped.

It is a story of innovation and retail “disruption,” a popular term today to describe someone or something re-writing the rules.

R.W. Sears purchased a shipment of watches from a retailer who received an incorrect shipment. Using advertising and flyers, Sears sold the watches at a profit. He soon began a mail order business selling only watches. Sears took a partner – Alvah Roebuck — and in 1893 the Sears, Roebuck and Company was formed.

The partners did mail order business with catalogs, selling a wide range of products to primarily rural customers who had limited access to goods. For 30 years, the company expanded its catalog business, selling everything items such as clothing, complete homes and even caskets before opening a retail outlet.

If you look through old newspapers of the time, you will find local retailers complaining about unfair competition from Sears and Roebuck. Some general stores in rural areas believed they had a captive customer base and sold to people who they could offer credit to, often being paid when crops were sold. Sears changed everything with their extensive mail order business.

Sears expanded into retail and continued to do mail order until 2003. Many of my generation can fondly recall going through the pages of the Christmas “wish books” to tell our parents exactly what we hoped Santa would bring.

As I read this history of Sears and Roebuck, I was struck by the similarities to another retailer who began by offering delivery of books and music. This retailer used the internet to “deliver” its “catalog” and a variety of vendors to bring the packages to the door.

You know this retailer, the one that strikes fear now - Amazon. The giant retailer launched in 1994 during the early days of the internet. Recently, Amazon expanded into brick and mortar stores, offering items given a four-star rating by customers. Amazon has also purchased Whole Foods, a retail grocer.

Today some retailers bemoan Amazon’s success and feel that they are unable to compete.

I would argue that a retailer that provides exceptional customer service and goods at a competitive price will always be in demand.

As for Sears and Amazon and the next retail disruptor (make no mistake, there is or will be a force that will send Amazon reeling) I think their innovations are to be respected and studied. In the end, the free market will determine who comes out on top.

R.W. Sears knew this, so does Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. So do the folks who continue to operate businesses in our town. We all must never take our customers for granted.

As always, I welcome your comments. You can reach me by email at tstangl@theameryfreepress.com, telephone 715-268-8101 or write me at P.O. Box 424, Amery, WI, 54001.

Thanks for reading; I’ll keep in touch. Feel free to do the same. 

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