Richard W. Sears was an American merchant who is best known for developing his mail-order jewelry business into the retail company Sears, Roebuck and Company. Sears started by founding a watch company, which he sold for $100,000 only three years later. He soon partnered with Alvah C. Roebuck to start the company known today, selling a wide variety of goods through a mail-order catalog. When Sears died in 1914, Sears, Roebuck was averaging sales of $40 million per year.
Richard W. Sears was born on December 7, 1863, in Stewartville, Minnesota. Sears's father was a successful blacksmith and wagon maker who lost all his money—about $50,000—in a failed speculative venture. He died while Sears was in his mid-teens, so Sears worked to help support the family. He learned telegraphy and found work with the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway, and eventually became a station agent.
His family's financial situation remained dire, however, and Sears soon sought ways to bring in extra income. The solution to their financial problems revealed itself when, in 1886, he learned of a local jeweler who had refused a watch shipment. Sears asked the manufacturer if he could try to sell the watches, and once permission was granted, Sears sent out letters to other station agents, offering the watches at a reduced price. He ended up selling them all, and with his $5,000 profit.
R.W. Sears Watch Company
Sears used the profits from his venture and started a mail-order watch business in Minneapolis. It was called the R.W. Sears Watch Company, and within six months, when Sears was still in his early 20s, the business was such a success that he resigned from the railroad and devoted himself full time to his new company.
The following year, Sears paired up with Alvah C. Roebuck, a watch repairman. His business was expanding, and in 1887 Sears published a mail-order catalog in which he had for sale not only watches but also diamonds and jewelry, sweetening his offers with a money-back guarantee.
Just three years after starting the business, in 1889, Sears decided to cash in on his successful run, selling the firm for $100,000 and moving to Iowa with plans to become a banker. The mail-order business was in his blood, however, and just two years later Sears headed back to Minnesota and established a new catalog business, A. C. Roebuck & Company, with Roebuck as his partner.
Sear, Roebuck and Company
In 1893, A.C. Roebuck & Company became Sears, Roebuck and Company and its headquarters were moved to Chicago. At this time, the Sears, Roebuck catalog ran nearly 200 pages and sold such goods as sewing machines, saddles and musical instruments. By the following year, the catalog had reached 507 pages, and Sears himself wrote nearly every word of it.
In 1908, after more than a decade as president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, Sears resigned from active participation in the business. By that point, the company was averaging annual sales of $40 million. Sears retired to his farm in Waukesha, Wisconsin—north of Chicago—and died six years later, on September 28, 1914.
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