100 Years Ago Today, This Was The World’s Most Disruptive Technology

The history of US consumerism starts with the Sears Roebuck mail order catalog. Yes, the very same Sears that is struggling to emerge from bankruptcy today. But 125 years ago the company was every bit the disruptive innovator. A brief summary of how that happened:

  • Mail order became viable in the late 1800s because of the expansion of the US rail system, post office regulations that allowed for catalog mailers at 1 cent/pound, and Rural Free Delivery.
  • The first Sears catalog was published in 1894 with the slogan “The Cheapest Supply House on Earth”.
  • Its target audience was rural America, which in 1900 was 60% of the US population. This was a deeply underserved community, often with just a thinly stocked general store to supply all their needs.
  • The 1903 catalog added the commitment of “Your money back if you are not satisfied”, reassuring customers that buying a product sight-unseen was a viable way to shop.

We recently bought a 1920 Sears catalog from an eBay seller. Printed in late 1919, it is a fascinating snapshot of American life 100 years ago. And, at 1,493 pages, it is a remarkably wide-angle view of that image. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 08:25 UTC - Details)

In studying this early bible of the American consumer, three points struck us as particularly salient when comparing 1920 to 2019:

#1: The comparison to Amazon.

  • Our catalog was published 25 years after Sears began its mail order business; Amazon is 25 years old today.
  • The scope of the Sears offering in 1920 was every bit as vast as Amazon’s is today. The company offered everything from men’s/women’s/children’s clothing to furniture, appliances, jewelry, home entertainment, toys, and even entire houses and farm buildings.
  • Sear’s merchandising method was exactly the same as what you see on Amazon’s website. Every item for sale had a picture, description, and price. The catalog is organized by the type of product offered for sale, something akin to “If you like this item, you might also like this…”
  • One key difference: Sears offered credit on expensive items. If, for example, you wanted to buy a “New Freedom” coal/wood stove, you could pay $86.50 ($1,100 today) or make a first payment of $10 and then $7.50/month thereafter until you had paid $95.50. That’s a 7.1% annualized interest rate, in case you were wondering. Amazon, of course, takes credit cards.

Conclusion: Sears was actually a more ambitious business model than Amazon when it started. On day one, it was already selling a wide array of products – not just books. In terms of consumer offerings, Amazon now is right where Sears was in 1920. Yes, there are more SKUs on the website, but in terms of what people needed in 1920 the Sears catalog is remarkably complete.

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