If you were to describe a company in its second decade of operation, wildly profitable and dominating the in-delivery retail space, most people would assume that you’re talking about Amazon. And while Amazon certainly fits that description, if you go back a century, you’d find another company with an almost uncanny similarity to the modern online retail giant: Sears.
Even though Sears stores and Sears Auto Centers are no longer directly related (though they are both owned by the same company, Sears Holdings), they do have a common ancestor, the Sears and Roebuck Co., which was in many ways the Amazon of the early 20th century.
A hundred years ago, Sears was thriving by offering customers the products they needed without the inconvenience (and cost) of a physical store. Sears did this with their iconic catalogue instead of a webpage, but the basic model would be the same as Amazon: keep overhead costs low, simplify distribution and let the customer shop from home.
But also like Sears, the draw of physical retail is driving Amazon to move into brick-and-mortar stores, though it remains to be seen if this partnership is a blip in the Amazon sales model or, as with Sears, a major shift in strategy. For Sears, that move came in 1925, which is 32 years after the company was founded – and fundamentally changed how the company did business. The next 60 years saw the Sears catalog shrink in importance until it eventually went away in 1993… coincidently the year before Amazon was founded.
At its height, customers could buy a wide variety of products from Sears through both in the store and through the catalog. Those products included the company’s Allstate brand of auto products (which exists only in the form of the now-independent insurance giant). Customers could buy Allstate tires and even a two-door sedan from Sears.
Partnering with Amazon turns back the clock to the days when Sears was the company that was delivering tires to the customer. But now, instead of being the new company looking to break into the physical retail space, it is on the other side of the equation. Perhaps in another hundred years, it will be Amazon in the same place.