Opinion | How Sears Was the Amazon of Its Day

And Richard Sears reached them. He used his genius for advertising and promotion to put a catalog in the hands of 20 million Americans in 1900, when the population was 76 million. The Wish Book or Big Book or Dream Book, as the catalog was variously called, could run a staggering 1,500 pages and offer more than 100,000 items. And when one of his pants suppliers, the manufacturing wizard Julius Rosenwald, became his partner, in 1886, Sears was on the way to becoming a vertically integrated juggernaut. Whether you needed a cream separator or a catcher’s mitt, a plow or a dress, or an entire house, Sears had it. “No matter where you go or how long you look, you’ll not find values approaching those this book presents,” the spring 1922 catalog declared.

Sears would carve up the catalog landscape with a local rival, Montgomery Ward. Remember it? Probably not. The e-sales promotion company Groupon, itself once mighty and now clinging to life, occupies part of Ward’s former headquarters in Chicago. Sears, Montgomery Ward and another Midwestern-born general merchandise retailer, J.C. Penney, dominated postwar American retailing, controlling 43 percent of department store sales by 1975. But even by then, Sears was beginning to falter under waves of new competition.

The company was not alone. A.&P., which introduced the first cut-rate grocery store in 1912, was also sliding into a long decline that would last through decades of ownership and management changes. Great A.&P. went through the final checkout lane in 2016 following its second bankruptcy. (Or was that the third?) A.&P. once operated 15,819 stores and ran the world’s largest food packaging plant, in Horseheads, N.Y. The company was so powerful that in 1949 trustbusters tried to slice it into seven independent companies. Even before that, states passed “chain laws” that included minimum markups, so small stores couldn’t be undermined by the loss leaders that A.&P. would offer to attract shoppers. A.&P., a vicious competitor, buried local retailers anyway.

By the inflation-racked 1970s, though, A.&P. was struggling against nimbler chains such as Safeway, which became the country’s top grocer, and Kroger, as well as new models of retailing such as big-box stores. Walmart’s eventual move into groceries would help seal A.&P.’s fate, and, at the same time, make the Arkansas company the nation’s top retailer, where it remains. For now.

A.&P. would later show some dubious creativity when in the early 1980s management scrapped and replaced the “overfunded” pension plan, plundering it for operating capital. This piece of sliminess was copied all over corporate America, signaling the end of the pension plans that so many workers depended on for retirement income.

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