© 2024 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Past & Present: Another Alternative To Bricks & Mortar

An important characteristic of 2016 holiday shopping is consumers’ ever-increasing use of the internet to make gift purchases. A century ago, American consumers also utilized an alternative to shopping in brick and mortar stores.

The appearance of mail order and catalog sales, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dramatically changed American retailing. Similar to today, shoppers were freed from having to leave the comfort of their homes to secure consumer goods. The establishment of free rural mail delivery in 1896 provided people in remote areas access to the growing cornucopia of products offered by Sears and similar companies. The growth of mail order and catalog sales, coupled with revenue generated by shoppers in physical department stores, made Sears & Roebuck a very profitable American business enterprise.

Perhaps ironically, an examination of Sears in 2016 reveals a company that is on the brink of bankruptcy. Among other things, Sears suffered during Wal-Mart’s rise as America’s premier brick and mortar retailer. Similarly, Amazon’s rise as America’s premier online retailer has left Sears in the dust.

On February 2, 2016, the website The Street labeled Sears stock not just the worst stock in the Dow Jones Index or the S&P 500, but the worst stock in the entire world. This blunt assessment verifies the sobering reality that, in the present-focused realm of American business, past success is meaningless.    

Robert E. Weems Jr. is the Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University.