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Catalog kick-starter

Once upon a time, shopping was simply expected to be a
chore. Now that it’s a recreational pastime, Americans want a convenient,
seamless experience. Recently, Sears announced that its store in the heart of
Chicago’s Loop on State Street will close its doors in April. In a company blog
post, the closing was linked to the growth of online shopping. Sears still has
three stores in Chicago, but closing its flagship store seems to signal the end
of a brick-and-mortar era.

The store closure led me to reflect on how the history of
Sears, which began as a catalog company, paralleled the growth of farms and
rural America. It’s obvious that Amazon.com owes a big debt of thanks to Sears.

Richard Sears, a Minnesota railway agent, and his partner,
Alvah Roebuck, began their business in 1881 with a mail-order catalog of
watches and jewelry. The time was right. The Homestead Act of 1864, America’s
westward expansion, the growth of the railroads, and the inception of rural
free delivery (RFD) later in 1896 made distribution of a catalog
cost-effective.

The Sears Roebuck catalog became a lifeline of commerce for
farmers, their families, and small-town residents. In fact, it was commonly
referred to as The Farmer’s Bible or The Wish Book. Sears Roebuck paved the way
for Amazon.com by showing that shopping by mail – virtual commerce – was
reliable and safe. Catalog shopping was cheaper than rural general stores
because it cut out the cost of the middleman. Sound familiar?

By 1897, the Sears Roebuck catalog featured 700 pages,
advertising almost everything needed to fill a house, as well as tools and
hardware. By 1908, it offered the house itself. Home blueprints, hardware, and
precut lumber for Sears Modern Homes were shipped via railcar to more than
70,000 customers between 1908 and 1940.

Rural doctors ordered homeopathic and conventional patent
medicines from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Eyeglasses became available in 1895.

The Sears Roebuck catalog remained a vital retail outlet
well after the turn of the century. Farmers and their spouses found useful
appliances and equipment within the pages of the 1927 catalog featured on this
page. You could order sewing machines and yard goods, Haviland china, musical
instruments, and the latest styles and fashions.

Even after brick-and-mortar Sears stores were common,
farmers were prime customers. My father-in-law, Earl Lingren, returned to farm
after World War II. My husband, Stan, says his dad told a story of using his
veterans’ disability checks to buy a David Bradley wagon from the Sears store
in Boone, Iowa. (David Bradley farm implements and equipment were sold
exclusively by Sears.)

Earl’s wagon probably was ordered through the catalog and
delivered to the store for around $300. Earl said he paid $17 per month for
several months.

My kids don’t remember shopping at the Sears store in Boone;
it closed in the 1970s. J.C. Penney shut its doors there in the mid-1980s. But
I remember shopping with Mom at the downtown department stores in Sioux City,
Iowa. I learned lessons there that aren’t part of an online shopping trip,
including:

• Taking a back seat. I wasn’t often at the top of Mom’s
list.

• Patience. My feet might be tired and I might be hungry,
but whining wasn’t an option.

• Bargain shopping. Trips usually included the Old Home
day-old bakery and forays to the thrift shop to buy brand-new jeans with
slightly defective zippers.

• Street smarts. Never set down a box of new Easter shoes
and walk away; not everyone is honest!

Today Sears.com has a full line of products, and overall
online sales for all retailers topped $1 trillion last year for the first time.
Of course, once you’ve ordered online, you still have to wait for your items.
Some retailers are working on a way for shoppers to click and then collect
their purchases at a nearby retail store.

Yet, a recent study by IBM predicted that online shopping
has peaked, and within five years, brick-and-mortar stores will reclaim their
allure. But in-store shopping will reemerge with a new digital dimension.
Cloud-based technology, combined with a virtual shop assistant, will tailor
recommendations to you on your mobile device based on your shopping history.
Expect mobile apps, as well as augmented reality, to figure prominently in the
future of in-store shopping. You’ll regain the best of both worlds: touching
your purchases and getting same-day delivery!

My grandparents, all farmers, were born about the time
mail-order catalogs were launched. Grandma talked about staying overnight with
her parents at a hotel located halfway along their 20-mile trip to Sioux City
to buy provisions. What would they think of Amazon.com’s plan to deliver
packages to our doorsteps by mini drone 30 minutes after we hit the Buy button?

Oh, but wait a minute. These mini drones would only have a 10-mile radius. Rural America, don’t take down your mailbox just yet.  

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