Back in the 1970s Sears and Roebuck made up 1% of the United State’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Their juggernaut status as a retailer was far-reaching, eventually leading to ⅔ of US consumers being patrons of their business. But long before actualizing their rising power—and eventually crashing—they started out via a matter of chance. As it turns out, Sears was built off the failure of a watch-selling endeavor. Indeed—Sears, Roebuck, and Co. came out of selling a trainload of watches. A Minnesota jeweler would essentially hand Richard Warren Sears the idea for his company. What’s more, it took a loss of wealthy early in Sears’ life to end up in this “right place at the right time”.
Richard Sears was born in 1863 to a pretty wealthy family. Not long after his birth, though, his father lost the family fortune on a speculative investment in stocks. They moved around after this unfortunate turn of events and eventually landed in Minnesota. By the age of 16 Sears was trained to be a telegraph operator and took jobs in South Dakota and Minnesota. Moving into his 20s, Sears took a job just north of a town called Redwood Falls, Minnesota (1886). It was here a Redwood Falls jeweler was trying to ship watches to rural stores on consignment—without actually asking the stores ahead of time.
These old-school watch sales were a bit of a strong-arm tactic. As it went, some old watch selling companies would send huge shipments of watches to other parts of the country (or a state), claiming a price tag of around 20bucks (a high markup for most mass-produced watches). When the prices were contested, they’d drop the prices to close the unwarranted sale. Well, Sears got ahold of one of these watch shipments while stationed at his railway job. He sold them at $14 each for a two-dollar profit (having purchased them all for $12.00 each). This enterprise was successful and not long after the “R.W. Sears Watch Company” was born. Sears then moved to Chicago in 1887 and put up an ad searching for a watchmaker. A young adult (aged 24) named Alvah C. Roebuck picked up the ad and the two began building the Sears brand with watches.
Sears, Roebuck, and Co.
First efforts by Sears were successful—but short lived. In 1889 he sold the R.W. Sears Watch Company for what would be 2.8million in today’s dollars. He could have lived off of that for a while, but he teamed back up with Roebuck in 1892 (within 3 years of selling R.W. Sears). A new enterprise took on a new name: “Sears, Roebuck, and Co.”. Returning to selling pocket watches, Sears and Roebuck opened a market for rural folks to order inexpensive goods from the big city—without big city markups. Eventually Sears, Roebuck, and Co. would offer virtually all consumer goods, including home-building kits. For a mega-low price, patrons could purchase a whole house’s worth of materials and build it up. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t try this out with watches, but trade secrets are trade secrets. Mass production allowed for mass ordering of consumer goods, which put a lot of buying power into poorer, rural consumers. This model would build an empire for Sears and Roebuck, eventually making them the largest retailer in the world.
Sears, Roebuck, and Co. has been on the decline for some time now—especially with the advent of online buying. However, their history is a testament to how a bit of luck, mixed with persistent business, can build something out of nothing. It’s pretty exceptional how Sears, Roebuck, and Co. made such a diverse brand out of a watch-selling business. By keeping their markups low and their volume high, they set a new standard for other large corporations. If only their later captains would have taken the ship to the online direction. Now Amazon and eBay are the 21st century version of Sears. Who will usurp these giants? Perhaps another business that can adapt with changing technology as the others stagnate. Time will reveal the next victor.
Times Ticking has been in operation for more than 30 years, since 1982. We have performed watch repair for customers both locally and internationally. If it Ticks! We KNOW it! Our team of watch repair technicians have a combined experience in watchmaking of over 120 years.