Back to Sears
Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1907
Looking it all over, it became a commonplace thing that the Richard W. Sears, telegraph operator in the little railroad station at Redwood Falls, Minn., fifteen years ago, is the millionaire head of the greatest mail order establishment in the world.
Sears himself says that all of this is commonplace; that if a watch firm at Fredonia, N.Y., years ago hadn’t sent him a watch, C.O.D., with privilege of return if he thought he couldn’t sell it, he still might be dealer in coal, wood, and lumber in northern Minnesota.
It is Richard W. Sears, millionaire, who stands out in the sharp relief of his individuality against the background of the conventional millionaires of the United States.
Who in Chicago knows this man Richard W. Sears? Neither his name nor that of his wife is on the roll of any church. They are not to be found on the membership lists of any club or society. They never have figured in the light of any of Chicago’s society movements in which the possession of much money always has been of such necessity. They tell you, over in fashionable Oak Park, where the Sears home is and has been for several years, that not one call of members of the fashionable set paid the Sears household ever has been returned.
Here was something to look into, especially in view of the fact Sears himself is only 43 years old and companionable, while it was agreed that Mrs. Sears is younger and personally quite eligible to all that is encompassed by that threadbare “charming” of the social world.
Many Friends but No Society.
It was novelty to discover that some of the closest friends of this millionaire family were the friends made when the Sears home in Chicago was a little flat, rented furnished, a dozen years ago; that some of the other closest friends of the household had been acquired in that other modest flat of a year later, when the Sears purse could afford to buy a flat’s simple furnishings. It has been the process of years for the few newer friends of the household to come into its simple life of wealth.
For the Sears life is of the simplest, and more—it is lived and not preached. The home at the coner of South Oak Pak avenue and Pleasant street in Oak Park is outshone by a half hundred other houses in the village. The summer home of the Sears family at Gray’s Lake, Ill., merely is a strictly modern farmhouse, fronting the lake from a stretch of virgin timber, while behind it and to the right and left are acres and aces of farming land sown to grass and planted to corn, and tiled and tilled in a manner to make an object lesson of it passing farmers.
It is between the home in Oak Park and the farm at Gray’s Lake that the Sears simple life is lived, year after year. A two months’ stay in Europe last winter, in which letters of introduction or letters of credit, was the first break—and probably the last—in the routine of this simple life.
Today on the Gray’s Lake farm the little Searses are running wild in the woods bareheaded and sunburned and often tattered, There are four of them—two girls and two boys—and frequently in the little main street of Gray’s Lake village, two miles away, a two-seat runabout brings the father in flannel shirt and overalls bowling up to “the store,” with the four little Searses hanging on to the vehicle just as they caught it after a race through the woods intercepting it.
Inland Architect, June, 1906
Richard W. Sears, Summer Residence, Grayslake, IL.
Practical Lesson in Economy.
“Funny,” some one in Gray’s Lake remarked to me:
- The Sears were in here the other day and the father insisted that one of the children could have only 10 cents of the 50 cents he had given the boy for a purchase. Yet Sears went right over to the livery stable, where there were two coach puppies for sale, which one of the children wanted, and paid $50 for the dog.
In the Sears philosophy of the simple life there is a vast difference between one of his children wanting 50 cents for candy and the same child wanting two dogs that cost $25 apiece.
The Sears summer home is a practical farm, largely that when the two boys are old enough they shall lend a hand to the sowing and the harvesting of the farm crops. In the meantime the father in flannels and overalls, working at the roughest of his work when he finds the time, is keeping close to that nature which alone is holding his perspectives clear and his sense of proportion true.
I have talked with the millionaire advocate of the simple life, who, dwelling on his riches, has shown me the miserly poverty of his nature. I have seen the millionaire advocate of the complex life, dwelling upon his riches and proving how wealth had distorted his views of rational living. But a new note has been struck for me in the character of this man Sears, who dons flannels and overalls to forget his wealth and its responsibilities; who cherishes the friends of his poverty in order not to be reminded of it; and who, with all the suggestion of extravagances which wealth might have prompted, finds nothing which it can buy to add to the gentle home life that was his years ago.
Approximately there are 50,000 telegraph operators in the United States. Approximately half of these are men operators. Making millionaires of all of these in the next dozen years, how many Searses among them?
Redwood, Minnesota station, from which Richard Sears sold his first watches.
Story Wonderful as That of Aladdin.
Commonplace as it seems to this man—station operator only a few years ago in the lumber woods of Minnesota and today president of a corporation of $40,000,000 capital employing 1n plant and subsidiary manufacturing stations 18,000 workers, and making annual sales of $50,000,000 a year—the Sears rise after all is akin to the story of Aladdin’s lamp. It is only that instead of a lamp to be rubbed it was that silver watch.
There were no particular promptings to a mercantile life in this young Sears. He wanted more money than the $50 a month and board, and in his fuel and lumber yard in Redwood Falls he was making more than his salary every month. But this $9 watch came C. O. D., with a suggestion from the shipping house that the young telegraph operator could make a nice profit selling them to agents and railroad men throughout the northwest. The price at which that watch could be delivered to him away up there astonished young Sears. Between the railroad men—buying and selling these watches with three ounce silver cases and jeweled movements—the standard figure was $20!
On the mail train of that night was a letter addressed by Sears to a standard watch manufactory making inquiry as to the price at which it would deliver him watches at Redwood Falls for retail. The figure quoted him on that particular grade of watch, C. O. D., was $9.40. It was a better watch. The day that the quotation was received Sears wrote forty letters to forty men in forty different towns—the swing of the old Western Union “hand” on the railway totter heads—asking if these men would not like to buy a good watch, cash on delivery with examination privileges, paying $11.90 each. The percentage of these men who wanted just such a watch was enormous, and on that first deal Sears cleared $200.
Goes into Business of Selling Watches.
This was the Sears beginning. He resigned his post at Redwood Falls and went to Minneapolis, selling out his fuel and lumber interests. He was a mail order merchant almost as unexpectedly as he might have become a skilled surgeon with a practice of $50,000 a year!
The Minneapolis move was as successful. Sears branched to Chicago and also was so successful that within two years he had cleaned up $200,000, solely on $9.40 watches at $11.90 apiece.
But the hard times of 1893 came on. Men don’t buy watches in hard times. Sears had nursed the idea of starting a bank on this competency, which he felt he had rounded out. His idea had been to go back to borne good town in the northwest for the experiment and he went. But northwestern towns were slow after the pace of the cities.
Sears put on his thinking cap. In these hard times in which watches were not salable he would lose his business prestige if he sat back waiting for a return of the time when watches again would be salable. The result of his thinking was to add to his line some of the necessities even of hard times, Buggies, harness, and sewing machines were the articles that appealed to him, and he had letter heads printed indicating his widening of the business. Then he prepared to feel his way for the one location for the plant.
His new letter heads showed the Chicago house to be only a branch office, the Minneapolis street and number designating the main house. But in spite of this, Mr. Sears discovered that almost three to one of his customers preferred to send their orders to the Chicago branch number. He closed the Minneapolis headquarters and came to Chicago, taking a five years’ lease on a five story building in West Adams street at a rental of $5,500 a year.
“I can sublet the space I can’t use,” he said to himself. But within a year he and A. W. Roebuck, with whom he had gone into partnership, assigned the unexpired five year lease and moved into another building (Enterprise) three times as large as the first one.
Sears Roebuck and Company Catalogue, Spring, 1898
Business Capitalized at Forty Millions.
The times had proved especially auspicious for the business. The passing panic had brought about a readjustment of the credit system in favor of the cash purchase. Goods could be bought lower and sold lower for cash than ever before in the experience of the customer. Trade began to push the business into capacity to meet its demands and it has kept pushing until, with Roebuck retired from the business, the present Sears, Roebuck & Co., is capitalized at $40,000,000, with sales of $50,000,000 a year. The facade of the vast new plant, from two to six stories in height, is 2,000 feet long, fronting a parkway which is open air ground for 8,000 employés. Thirty acres, west from Kedzie avenue and Harvard street, have been acquired, and the passenger in the early morning Kedzie avenue car is struck by the fact that at Harvard street the packed vehicle empties itself, whether north or south bound, and its passengers merge with the vast procession that moves from the Kedzie avenue station of the Metropolitan elevated into the grounds.
Forty-eight freight cars for loading may be accommodated in the shelter of the plant and forty-eight cars may stand on the outside tracks ready for the locomotives of the Belt road, which reaches every line of railroad entering Chicago.
Looking over this vast plant, which has grown up from the receipt of that first silver watch, fifteen years ago, Mr. Sears maintains that he hasn’t had so much to do with it. Even with the prospects of the silver watch, he says that if it hadn’t been for old man Wynkoop of Rush City, Minn., he might never have had the opportunity for letting other men’s abilities and loyalty to his business make him a millionaire and the president of a gigantic corporation.
Wynkoop was a general store merchant in Rush City years ago. He was a German-American in a settlement of Scandinavians which was clannish to a degree. But Wynkoop drew Scandinavian trade away from Scandinavian competitors in spite of national ties. Wynkoop had several clerks and seldom sold goods himself. He stood always on the customer’s side of the counter and his clerks always maintained that it was easier to satisfy a customer than it was to satisfy Wynkoop. And often when the old man had studied an article and questioned and expressed doubts which the customer at his side never would have felt, the clerk would be left to restore the goods to its place while the old man walked with the customer to the door, telling him he could buy a better thing across the street.
Old man Wynkoop first suggested to young Sears that it was a good policy to sell goods from the customer’s side of the counter. When the Fredonia, N. Y., watch house suggested that Sears sell watches, he took that idea second hand. And now that his business has grown beyond the imaginations of the young telegraph operator Sears maintains that other people did it, and that as for his “brilliancy and tremendous faculty in organization”—pooh!
But it requires a good deal of character, native modesty, and common sense in the active man of millions to keep hands off in the activities of the business.
“You can’t tell a man just what he is to do and how he is to do it, and then hold that man responsible for what he does,” is one of the Sears principles.
When the new plant was planning Sears sent for the manager of the department which had been getting out the Sears catalogues. A big contracting printer had been doing the catalogue work. Sears asked his manager if he didn’t think the new plant should have its printing plant and bindery. The manager said it should.
“Well, Blank & Blank are our architects,” said Sears. “See them and build the plant.”
Employes Accept Full Responsibility.
On one occasion a firm wishing to do business with the Sears house sent its representative there prepared to close a contract with the company. He was referred to the manager of the department. When the proposition had been canvassed and found acceptable, the manager signed the contract.
“Now, where shall I go to have this O. K.’d?” asked the agent.
“You don’t have to go anywhere,” said the manager. “I have contracted with your firm; you’ll find that it holds.”
It was that particular representatives first experience of the kind in his business career!
When you ask these heads and managers of this house, however, you discover not only a reason for this but an evidence of the Sears philosophy of “Do it.” The general manager of the house is only 27 years old, but he was only 17 years old when he came under the Sears influence. The merchandise manager is no older, and he has given every year of his business life to the Sears activities. Virtually every head of every department grew up in the house in which the principle of selling goods from the customer’s side of the counter has ruled.
“Why don’t you quit business? You’ve got enough!” was the challenge of one of Sears’ friends some time ago.
Likes the Game of Business
“That thought has come to me a good many times,” replied the millionaire, “Will you believe me when I tell you why I haven’t? There are two reasons, one of them poor, perhaps. This rather poor reason is that I like the game of business. The great reason coming home to me is that it would be selfish in me to let go now.”
I knew what Sears meant and I went to see a young man of the high strung temperament who I knew had left the Sears establishment.
“What was the matter with your old job over at Sears?” I asked. “Didn’t you get money enough?”
“O—yes,” he said, slowly; “but the trouble is they’re too d—-d paternalistic! Why, they even send around and look you up at your home!”
Could there be a plainer demonstration of the limitations of the man who has only millions? Sears would not quit business because it would be selfish, and my spirited young friend would not work there for the reason that the Sears unselfishness galled him.
The Mayo brothers, surgeons, who have made Rochester, Minn., the world’s Mecca of surgery, are personal friends of Richard W. Sears, who was born in the little town which these two brothers have made famous.
When I had seen that former employé of the Sears corporation I could understand the Sears sentiment when Sears says that he rather would be one of those gentle, simple minded brothers than to head a corporation which might control the material business of a continent.
No man knows better than the millionaire that there are other things in the world than money, and no doubt the men of dollars often long to escape the net in which they are caught. But in spite of the crude way in which “divine right” Baer voiced it, riches implies a stewardship which not even a benevolent Carnegie may escape.
“I would get out of business in a minute if I knew something in which to make a better use of money.”
This is a Sears expression made in all sincerity to a friend.
Likes to Watch Men Rise.
“But consider this: in the Chicago house we have 8,000 employés, not all of whom are the most adaptable to the circumstances of life and living. It has been a great satisfaction and a great study to see these people develop—to get a department manager here and a general manager there—to develop them. I have seen these men come up through the ranks to places in business life, and their loyalty has spoken louder than words.
“Again there are 10,000 factory people whose products are absorbed by the Chicago house—one of these the largest stove factory in the world.
“My own and my family’s wants are of the simplest. But should I quit, leaving these thousands of dependents to some one else?”
There is a little story illustrative of the Sears view of millions. Almost by accident a chance guest came into the house. Host, hostess, and guest spent some delightful hours. Before leaving the hostess suggested a better acquaintance between the two families.
“I might have suffered it myself had it not been for this infernal difference of money,” returned the chance caller.
“Yes, I’ve often thought the same thing,” returned the hostess, “It is infernal!”
This man Sears is one of the least conspicuous of men, physically and temperamentally. The man in the crowd would not see him. He is perhaps two inches under 6 feet, broad of shoulder and deep of chest. His complexion is dark and his eyes a rather light shade of brown. His speech, which la quicker than the average, is not quick enough for his thoughts, which shows the nervous temperament when the sturdy frame would not suggest it. “You understand?” is an empty verbiage which allows the space for framing the pressing thought into speech.
Quick to Think and to Decide.
But talking with this man one cannot escape the power of concentration which he possesses in marked degree. No matter how trivial the topic that is brought up, there is no wandering of the man’s attentions. He has the judicial temperament and this in combination with his concentration of attentions leaves him the powers of quick decision.
Home is this man’s sole thought when he can unload the cares of the day. How much his telephone bills of a summer are merely to hear that everything is right with wife and children at Gray’s Lake farm must be a tidy sum, though Mr. Sears counts upon spending three days of the week’s seven out there.
In this home life, in winter or in summer, those old friends of the Sears days of flat life understand why the influences of millions of money have been allowed so grudgingly to enter in. These millions are the tree and the fruit of business; the home always has been home, and the line of demarcation is drawn clearly between.
Few millionaires can understand, which concerns the Sears family not in the least.
The Sears friends who were made when the Sears fortune was a least asset in that friendship are friends who count present millions as no possible block or bar to its continuance. For millions never are talked—never are thought—never are needed in the Sears social circle.
An odd millionaire, isn’t he?
The Printers Ink, October 8, 1914
RlCHARD W. SEARS, founder of Sears. Roebuck & Co., died on September 27, in a sanitarium in Waukesha, Wis. He was fifty-one years old.
Mr. Sears’ career typified the romance of American business. In 1884, while working as a telegraph operator for the Great Northern Railroad at Redwood Falls, Minn., he conceived the idea of selling watches by mail It came about in this way: In his capacity of telegrapher he also served as express agent. One day a shipment of watches came from a firm in the East, consigned to a local jeweler C.O.D. For some reason or other the jeweler refused to accept delivery. Mr. Sears wrote to the shippers offering to sell the watches if he were allowed a commission. His offer was accepted. He then offered the watches for sale to nearby railroad men by means of telegrams and letters, and quickly sold the entire consignment.
This experience opened his eyes to the possibilities of selling by mail. He made an agency arrangement with the watch company and started a spare-time mail-order business under the name of the R. W. Sears Watch Company. He wrote his letters with pen and ink in his leisure hours. Later, when his correspondence demanded more time than he could spare, he enlisted the aid of a railroad man working on a nearby section. From this humble start grew the greatest mail-order house in the world, capitalized to-day at $50,000,000
Soon Mr. Sears’ spare-time work became so profitable that he resigned his position as telegraph operator, moved to Minneapolis, and started in the mail-order business in real earnest with $8,000 he had saved.
In the late eighties he moved to Chicago. He continued to prosper. Then a Chicago firm made him an attractive offer for his business, which he accepted. A condition of the sale was that Mr. Sears should not engage in the mail-order business in Chicago for a period of five years.
When the transfer was completed Mr. Sears returned to Minneapolis. At this point the level headedness of the man is shown in a striking manner. He was not yet twenty-four, yet had over $100,000 in the bank, made entirely by his own efforts in the mail order business. The possession of such a large sum of money by so young a man is often a signal for erratic actions. But it affected Mr. Sears not a particle. His first step was to buy his mother a home. Then he invested the major part of his capital in Minnesota eight per cent farm mortgages. He never parted with this investment.
He started again in the mail order business in Minneapolis. At this time Mr. Roebuck worked for him as repairman. They formed a partnership. The new business crew by leaps and bounds. The advantages of Chicago as a distributing center appealed strongly to Mr. Sears. So at the end of the specified five years he moved again from Minneapolis to Chicago. This was in 1895. Mr. Roebuck stayed with, Mr. Sears for about four years.
Wrote His Own Copy
Mr. Sears was a prodigious worker. He would work eighteen hours a day for weeks at a stretch. In the early days he originated all the ideas and plans used in the business, and wrote his own copy. Once on the trail of an idea, he would forget all about time and would stick until it was developed, or at least in condition to turn over to an assistant
He placed entire confidence in the men around him. He believed in the policy of throwing responsibility on his men and of giving them free rein to rise to the occasion. Possibly he was fortunate in selecting men, possibly his method developed men—anyhow, he succeeded in duplicating himself among his assistants.
Mrs. Sears often complained good-naturedly about Mr. Sears’ devotion to his business. When he left home in the morning she never knew just when he would return. Sometimes she would hear from him at his office in the early morning hours; other times the following day, from one of his factories several hundred miles from Chicago, or from a train bound for New York. He never let up until the thing in hand was completed, even though it took him to distant parts of the country. He was a man of tremendous energy and possessed the faculty of being able to pour his entire vitality into the matter in hand.
“I never knew of a man so prolific in ideas,” said an executive of the firm, who worked side by side with Mr. Sears in the early days. “He developed ideas so fast that he could not possibly use them all. The ideas he discarded would make fortunes for scores of men. When anyone started to explain a plan to him he would divine the plan and give an answer almost before the speaker got-tarted on his explanation. He could see all sides of a subject and could carry the whole matter in his mind for weeks at a time. Then, without a note to prompt him, he would sit down and dictate spontaneously by the hour. The transcript would always be a model of orderly arrangement and forceful expression.
“‘He had the soul of an artist in that he was never satisfied with his work. He would take an advertisement, or a catalogue page, which had just come from the printer, scrutinize it thoroughly, and say, ‘Now this watch is not placed right—it should be this way,’ as he took an imaginary watch in his hands and placed it at the correct angle in mid-air. This action was characteristic of him.
“In building an advertisement or a catalogue the thought of economy never entered Mr. Sears mind. His one idea was to get it right. Often times he would discard six or ten pages of a catalogue already in type, and have these pages set up all over again. He never allowed printed matter to be issued until it represented his ideas, down to the smallest detail, of how it should be done.
“His first advertisements were his famous ‘Send-no-money’ series. When these advertisements first appeared the advertising world stood aghast. The advertisements violated every supposed principle of good advertising. They were small in size, closely set in five-point type, full of detailed description, hard to read, and without headings. They started out, ‘Send no money. Cut this advertisement out, return to us, and we will send you . . .”
Everyone stated in no uncertain manner that people would not read such small type. ‘I’ll make them read it,’ replied Mr. Sears to his intimates, ‘by making the matter so interesting that they’ll not want to miss a single word.’ And he won his case. Mr. Sears said that he used small type in order to get the utmost value out of the space.
“From five to twenty advertisements of this nature — each advertising different articles — appeared in each issue of a big list of publications, with from twenty to thirty millions of circulation in the aggregate. Space bills averaged from $50,000 to $60,000 a month. This campaign distributed millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise of intrinsic value, and built up his immense catalogue mailing list.
His Copy Sincere and Simple
“Mr. Sears possessed the knack of convincing expression, and could unhesitatingly choose the word that expressed the exact shade of meaning he wished to convey. He wrote just as he talked. Take this letter, for example,” continued the executive as he dipped into a desk drawer, “which was written personally by Mr. Sears in 1904. It may not conform to the rules of rhetoric, some of the sentences may be a little long, and the punctuation may be a little ‘off,’ but it pulled the business. Before you pass judgment on the letter, read it right through, postscript and all. and note the effect it has on you.” Which the writer did, and had to admit that it got him—made him want one of the stoves which Mr. Sears described. Just how this effect is produced is hard to analyze, unless it is by means of the simple expressions, neighborly talk, and obvious sincerity.
“Now,” resumed the executive, as his eyes lighted up, “let us nail a misstatement that has been widely circulated regarding Mr. Sears. It has been stated that on one occasion Mr. Sears advertised a complete set of furniture for one dollar, and that he filled orders with a set of dolls’-house furniture.
“This statement is absolutely false. Mr. Sears was a living exponent of the square deal, and would not even dream nor much less stoop to such methods. This thing was done by a man formerly connected with Mr. Sears in the early days—and I could name the man. It was not Mr. Roebuck. On account of this man’s former close connection with Mr. Sears many persons erroneously supposed that Mr. Sears was responsible for the deception.
“It has been slated that Mr Sears was the biggest plunger in the mail-order business. This, also, is untrue. All facts controvert this statement. Mr. Sears never plunged, although he did things on a tremendous scale. No idea was too daring or revolutionary for him. But before he operated a campaign of any kind he first tried it out in a small way. The making of preliminary tests was a fixed principle with him. He always knew in advance, as far as it is possible to know, just what results his campaigns would produce. In his entire business and private life he was never known to gamble in any way.
How Sears Met The 1907 Panic
“Mr. Sears’ action during the panic of 1907 typified him at his best. Sales dropped off on account of money being tight. He reasoned that people still wanted goods, but either hadn’t the ready money or else were afraid to spend it.
“So he penned a slip of paper reading substantially, ‘If you haven’t the ready money to send us with your orders, send us any thing that looks like money. Your personal check or your clearing house certificate will do, and will be accepted as cash.” Advertisements reading to this effect were published broadcast throughout the country.
“Then our printing-presses were started turning out millions of these slips of paper. We used any old kind of paper we could lay hands on—writing paper, catalogue paper, even newsprint paper. Millions of these slips were mailed each week all over the country. One was enclosed with each letter or package we sent out.
“Of course, misguided friends dubbed the idea the limit of foolishness. They said we should hold onto our money and not spend any more than necessary. While others retrenched, Mr. Sears boosted. And his reward was a great flood of orders which taxed even our resources to the limit, large as they are. Mr. Sears always did the unusual, and, in consequence, reaped unusual results.
Bought As Carefully As He Sold
‘Although Mr. Sears is known the world over as a master salesman by mail, it is not generally known that his abilities as a buyer equaled those as a seller. By persons who sold goods to him be is unqualifiedly credited with having been one of the shrewdest buyers ever in business.
“Here, too, his policy of making tests precede action held sway. Before buying goods of any kind he made it a fixed rule to know as much about the goods as the man selling them; also what his competitors were doing with the same class of goods. He even went so far as to personally analyze for days at a time the goods of his competitors in order to satisfy himself that his merchandise was as good as theirs, if not better.
“When he had this information, and when price and conditions were right, he would contract for outputs that would stagger the average man. He always bought on an economical basis. He knew he could sell good merchandise. Experience showed that his judgment of merchandise at both the buying end and the selling end was about as perfect as any man’s can be. He worked out, hand in hand with his promotion work, the problems of merchandise and sources of supply to keep pace with the growing demand he created. He started new factories and developed existing ones.
“Mr. Sears was a firm believer in thorough description of goods in his advertisements. He always went the limit on description. He explained this by saying that he wanted to be sure that the prospective buyer would know just what he was going to receive for his money. He did not want the buyer to think he was going to get something he was not. In advertising suits, for example, he even went so far as to describe in detail the linings of the coats, the buttons, and evsn the buttonholes.
“While Mr. Sears did not originate the mail-order idea, he was without question the originator in entirety of what may be called the technique of the mail-order business. To him is due entire credit for the mail-order style of advertisements, of form letters, of minute descriptions of goods, and of guarantees—in fact, the whole run of successful mail-order practice.
His Policies Regarding the Guarantee
“He was a firm believer in backing his merchandise with the broadest kind of guarantee—that of ‘Satisfaction or, money refunded.’ He took the position that the customer was always right, no matter what it cost him to satisfy the customer. If a customer claimed that the goods were not right, Mr. Sears would reply with a letter to the effect that if the customer would return the goods, even if he had used them, his money would immediately be refunded. He lived up to this to the letter, and returned money instantly without question. He placed emphasis on the fact that his goods were always as represented. And he backed his statements by offering to send goods C. O. D. He was probably the first man to send goods C. O. D., subject to inspection, with transportation charges guaranteed both ways. Mr. Sears was a firm believer in throwing every possible protection around the customer, and of shouldering all the risk himself. He was the originator of the policy of a broad, liberal guarantee, and of protecting the customer in every possible way. This policy was a great factor in his success.
“Mr. Sears was probably the first advertiser to place emphasis on the personal element in advertising. His letters, from salutation to close, were always phrased in a personal tone, and asked the customer to send orders to ‘Richard W. Sears, President, personally.’ He always signed letters, too, in this way, and omitted entirely the name of the company. He strove to impress customers with the fact that they were dealing with a flesh-and-blood individual and not an institution. He had a way of addressing customers in their own language, in a simple, neighborly fashion that they could understand. His letters breathed honesty and genuine sincerity. They were invested with a spirit of helpfulness and the desire to serve that reflectedhis intense earnestness in this direction.
Getting Prospects to Act
“He knew the inability of country people to express themselves easily in writing, and he knew the mental inertia of people in general. To offset these conditions he originated the ‘Do This’ style of advertising. He would say, ‘If you want this catalogue, simply write us a letter or a postal, and say, “Send me your big catalogue,” and it will go to you by return mail, postpaid.’ Knowing the scarcity of writing material in the average country home at that time, and also that many people hesitate to order through fear of not doing it right, he would say to them, ‘Write to us in your own way, in any language; we will understand, and will fill your order correctly. If you haven’t an order blank handy, use any plain paper; use pencil or pen—it makes no difference. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake We will take all the risk and will return your money immediately, including whatever you paid for freight or express charges, if the goods are not perfectly satisfactory.’
“Fair in his dealings, democratic to the extreme, plain and unaffected, Mr. Sears was a most lovable man. He was easy to meet and immediately put a caller at ease. When you had faced him for a few minutes, and had heard him talk, you realized instinctively that you were in the presence of a ‘big’ man. To know him was to regard him as a prince among men.
“Mr. Sears was a home man in every sense of the term. He had no social aspirations. He sold out his business and retired in 1909 solely on account of his wife’s health. He made the acquaintance of Mrs. Sears while she was a girl in his employ. They were married in 1895. Mr. Sears was born in Stewartville, Minn., December 7, 1863, and was educated in the public schools.
“Mr. Sears was not only a factor in the financial growth of Chicago, but he devoted both time and money to furthering civic and philanthropic projects. His friends attributed his success to his honesty, courage, lack of display, broad vision, knowledge of country people, and ability to get the view-point of the other man. When he retired in 1909, his fortune was estimated at $25,000,000.”
Why Sears Retired at 45
Unlike many of our captains of industry, Mr. Sears believed that after one had accumulated a fortune in business he had earned the right to retire and spend the rest of his life in ease. With that end iu view he began early to build up an organization which would eventually lift from his shoulders the worries and trials of management. In 1908 he withdrew from the active management of the business, and a year later resigned the presidency to become chairman of the board of directors, a position created for him. In a letter to Printers’ Ink dated August 22, 1909, Mr. Sears summed up his reasons for withdrawing from active business as follows:
- I have been selfish enough to feel that a good part of a life’s work devoted to the effort of helping, perhaps in a feeble way, to bring about the conditions of the present (in seventeen years Mr. Sears had built the annual sales from nothing to over $50,000,000), and the promise for the future in this line has earned for me something besides money, namely, a little relaxation and a little time for my family; and perhaps some of the time that would otherwise go to merchandising will go to my dear old mother in her last years.
The vitality of the business founded by Mr Sears is shown by the fact that under the able management of those now in charge the sales mounted up in 1913 to a total of $95,584,000. Last January the Wall Street Journal estimated that the sales for 1914 could rise to $105,000,000.
em>The Printers Ink, May 16, 1918
A GREAT deal has been printed in the business papers and elsewhere in reference to the phenomenal success of Sears, Roebuck & Company. To my mind the success of the concern was due to the vision and shrewdness of R. W. Sears, who crowded his luck to the limit when things were coming his way.
Sears’ early mail-order experience was in what might be termed the His extravagant school. ads were of the old-time mail order type where a cut of the article was used in the left-hand corner and a complete description surrounded it with adjectives in plenty and mighty little white space.
Sears knew how to write a mail order ad, and probably was sec ond only in this ability to the late F. M. Lupton, whom I consider the most skillful in that line. When Sears got through with his description of any particular arti cle of merchandise there was not much left to be said about it.
The leading mail-order house of Chicago was proceeding along rather conservative lines, care fully distributing its catalogues, for which ten cents was charged, when Sears began to advertise in his convincing and direct way to send catalogues free; and as each catalogue, postage included, prob ably cost a dollar per copy, he cer tainly had his nerve with him. And he won out!
No single item ever contributed so much to the success of a busi ness enterprise, in my opinion, as the bicycle did to Sears. Roebuck & Company. T do not know how many thousands they sold, but I knew of one used by a steamfitter in New Hampshire which was in use for fifteen years; apparently everyone in the country knew that Fred Eastman’s bicycle came from Sears, Roebuck & Company, of Chicago, at half the price of the standard makes, and “was going yet.” When such a visible example of a bargain as a bicycle is spread over the country’ it provides most valuable word-of-mouth advertising— the best there is. If Sears had sold a million half-dollar undershirts at five cents apiece, it would not have had the advertising value of a hundred thousand bicycles on which he made a profit. The one is not on view, the other is.
Some of Sears’ Advertising Policies Explained
Sears’ policies as an advertising man interest me more than his skill as a merchant. In the years when his business was increasing by leaps and bounds between 1895 and 1899, the Sears-Roebuck advertising was placed in about every worth-while publication in the country. When it was to his advantage to do so, Sears preferred to deal direct with the publisher, using the agencies only when necessary. He had an accurate knowledge of and respect for the cheap mail-order papers of the period and used them extensively. He thoroughly believed in the value of sample copies sent to those whose names had been taken from original letters, and believed, as did the darkey, that “if y’u wan’ tu reach de masses y’u must get down where de masses is.”
At the time Sears was using these mail-order papers so largely they aggregated a circulation of fifteen millions per month. He would run from five to twenty-five different advertisements in each paper, each advertisement featuring a specialty with price and description, and a strong catalogue call.
Sears would request position for about one advertisement in four, being willing to let the most of them take their chances. He knew that any advertisement that was a puller would draw replies even if placed where the so-called expert would regard it as buried. If a Sears-Roebuck advertisement of a guaranteed steel range for $14.40 was bounded on the north by “I Cure Fits,” on the south by “Consumption,” on the east by “Lovers’ Guide,” and on the west by “Drunkenness Cured.” he made no complaint, knowing that the woman whose eye was attracted by that advertisement was more interested in eats than ethics.
Estimating his outlay for advertising in these mail-order papers between 1895 and 1899 as $500,000, I venture the opinion that Sears didn’t pay more than $200,000 for it, as in one instance he bought a million circulation at eighty-five cents per line; in another a million and a half for a dollar and a half; and often he got in on the ground floor and bought space at absurdly low prices. Circulations were increasing very rapidly, and Sears bought on a rising market.
No other mail-order house ever placed its advertising as shrewdly as did Sears-Roebuck; and where a satisfactory rate existed the mail-order papers were used throughout the year. Occasionally, the monthly check from Sears-Roebuck was sufficient to pay the paper bill, and one mail order publisher told me that his check from Sears for August paid more than one-half of his entire expenses for the month.
Big Space User Got A Very Special Rate
A good many publications allowed discounts for time or space If the lowest rate was based on the use of one thousand lines per year all precedents were broken when Sears contracted for ten or twenty-five thousand, and he saw no reason why the thousand-line rate should be regarded seriously when he was using more space than any single advertiser, and in some cases more than a dozen agencies combined. So the publishers had up their sleeves a ten or twenty-five-thousand-line rate which Sears enjoyed; and when this was thrown up to them they came back with the reply that any advertiser who used as much space as Sears, under the same terms and conditions, could get the same rate. Advertising agencies were often peevish at the rate enjoyed by Sears, but the mail-order publisher was a shrewd one, and knew that if he cut his rate to an agent for one account the agent would expect the same reduction on all of his accounts. A special rate was a more dangerous thing to hand an agent than to a large advertiser doing business direct.
R. W. Sears was a mail-order man, had the mail-order viewpoint, knew how to buy advertising space, knew the value of copy, knew the conditions surrounding mail-order publications, and he succeeded in a big way because he possessed those qualities to a greater degree than any other mail-order man who ever lived.