How Sears created modern retail in Illinois

Editor's note: Most people know about the Great Chicago Fire, but there's a lot more to Illinois history than that. Native American settlements thousands of years old, the battle over slavery, the transfer of influence from southern to northern Illinois, wars and riots, the gangsters and politicians and artists and athletes that shaped our state all will be part of a yearlong series of articles to mark Illinois' bicentennial. The Daily Herald and dozens of publications across the state are joining forces on the series, which will continue until Illinois' 200th birthday on Dec. 3. Find previous stories at

As the home of Sears since the late 19th century, Illinois is the birthplace of modern retail.

Even today's colossus,, can trace the roots of its business model to Sears' original mail-order business that popularized the notion of buying products at home without first seeing and touching them in person.

“There were some small mail-order companies before, but Sears became the largest, the most successful, the giant,” said Libby Mahoney, senior curator of the Chicago History Museum.

And if it now seems strange that such a retail company would grow strong enough to make its headquarters the tallest building in the world as Sears did in Chicago in 1973, consider today's intense competition among cities to house Amazon's second headquarters, she said.

It was Chicago's central position in the nation's railroad and highway networks that made it a better place for Richard Sears to operate the mail-order watch company he'd started in Minneapolis the previous year, 1886.

In Chicago, Sears partnered with watchmaker Alvah C. Roebuck, leading to the longtime name of the firm being Sears, Roebuck and Co. Its first catalog featuring only watches and jewelry was published in 1888, while its first large catalog of general merchandise came along in 1896.

Sears wooed customers with promises of savings gained by eliminating the middleman. It popularized the money-back guarantee to build trust with the consumer, Mahoney said.

Richard Sears Courtesy of CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM

The gradual diversification of the company's products seemed to know no bounds, perhaps best illustrated by the advent of Sears Modern Homes.

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold about 75,000 such homes around the country by mail order. Many of the homes, which came in 447 different designs, exist today.

Sears sold about 75,000 kit homes in 447 styles. This one in Libertyville is among many examples across the suburbs. Daily Herald file photo

Such a company at that time largely depended on the U.S. Post Office for its success and reliability, Mahoney said.

But eventually, Sears, Roebuck's original mail-order business began to be threatened by the greater urbanization of the country after World War I.

The solution - championed by then-vice president and future company President Robert E. Wood - was the introduction of brick-and-mortar stores in the 1920s.

Many other innovations followed under Wood's guidance, including getting into the insurance business during the Great Depression with the creation of Allstate Insurance. Like several other Sears-created brands, Allstate eventually would be spun off as a completely independent company, but not until 1993.

The Sears, Roebuck and Co. store on South State Street at Congress Parkway in Chicago, built in 1891, designed by William LeBaron Jenney. Courtesy of CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM

Although Sears has never been a manufacturer, its brands such as Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances and DieHard batteries helped build the company's reputation.

Even as the biggest of all, Sears didn't take customer loyalty for granted, Mahoney said.

“They were really trying to improve the appearance of their products and make them stylish in the '30s,” Mahoney said. “I think they were really savvy merchants.”

The nation's economic recovery after World War II was what enabled such imitators as Kmart, Target and Kohl's, but probably not until the '70s or '80s did they start to have a significant impact on Sears' business, Mahoney said.

In an undated file photo, Ruth Parrington, a librarian in the art department of the Chicago Public Library, studies early Sears Roebuck catalogs in the library's collection. The catalog Parrington is holding features women's fashion from 1902. AP file photo

Even in the mail-order years, the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward was the country's distant second-place retailer, despite having started earlier.

“Sears always seemed to have the upper hand,” Mahoney said.

Nevertheless, Ward's successfully carved a niche for itself by deliberately selling different products than Sears did, she said.

For the past 25 years, Sears has made its headquarters at the 780-acre Prairie Stone Business Park it created on the west side of Hoffman Estates.

Though the now-vanished Poplar Creek Music Theater was probably the first name that put Hoffman Estates on the regional map, Sears was an even bigger one, Mayor Bill McLeod said.

“When it was announced, it was a really big deal,” McLeod said. “Sears was an iconic retailer. It obviously brought a lot of attention to the village. Sears made a big difference.”

Construction workers put finishing touches on the exterior of Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s new headquarters in Hoffman Estates on July 30, 1992. AP file photo, 1992

Among the other developments that have located around it are the Sears Centre Arena - now home to the NBA G League's Windy City Bulls - and the Chicago region's 185,000-square-foot Cabela's store.

The westward expansion of the village's commercial presence was followed by equivalent residential growth.

“There was very little housing on the west side of the village before Sears came,” McLeod said.

Though headlines today often chronicle the company's present struggles, reminders of Sears' heyday are all around. These include the call letters of Chicago radio station WLS - which stands for “World's Largest Store” for the four years Sears owned the station in the 1920s - and the name of Schaumburg's massive Woodfield Mall, which honors both Robert Wood and iconic Chicago merchant Marshall Field.

A skyline view from the Chicago River looking north toward the Sears Tower in August 1989. Courtesy of CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM

But for a business based in the greater Chicago area for more than 130 years, Sears' longevity and influence are truly historic, Mahoney said.

“They've hung on longer than the stockyards,” she laughed.

Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors.

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