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Sears Holdings Corp. has seen a lot in its 125 years — the question now is whether it will live to see its 126th birthday.
For much of the 20th century, value shopping in America was synonymous with Sears, which had its roots in mail-order. Each new edition of its catalog was like an update of the consumer bible — essentially a pre-internet version of Amazon. Sears became the biggest U.S. retailer by revenue and was in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for 75 years, starting in 1924. But the consumer world has been overturned with the rise of the web, the decline of the shopping center and rapidly evolving buying habits. Now, the struggling U.S. chain is said to be nearing a bankruptcy, potentially ending in liquidation. Here’s a look back at how an American icon went from small-town retailer to leading department store to perhaps the next vacancy at a mall near you.
Richard Sears, an agent of the Minneapolis and St. Louis railway station in North Redwood, Minnesota, gets a shipment of watches in 1886 for a jeweler who doesn't want them. So he buys and sells them and decides to start the R.W. Sears Watch Company. In 1887, he moves the business to Chicago and advertises for a watchmaker. Alvah C. Roebuck answers the ad and is hired. Sears sells the company in 1889.
Sears and Roebuck, both in their twenties, get together again and form A.C. Roebuck Inc. in 1892. The name changes to Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1893. Its mail-order business is increasingly popular with farmers as an alternative to rural stores. By 1895, the catalog includes women's clothing, wagons, stoves, furniture, firearms, buggies, bicycles and other goods. Roebuck leaves that year, and Chicago clothing manufacturer Julius Rosenwald buys in, becoming vice president.
1900s - 1920s
Sears expands rapidly and goes public in 1906. Richard Sears retires as president in 1908. The company adds home-building kits — shipped mainly via railroad boxcars — to its catalog offerings that year and drops patent medicines in 1913. In the early 1920s, Rosenwald personally supports the company through a financial crisis and becomes chairman in 1924. General Robert E. Wood joins the same year and remains involved for almost half a century, including serving as president and chairman. And 1924 is also when Sears is added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It opens its first retail store in 1925.
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