When Sears was a startup


The rain falls alike on the Just and Unjust. All should be supplied with mackintoshes

I'm here in Seattle for a quick family visit (though I couldn't resist visiting a couple of the local startups) and I found myself flicking through a copy of the 1897 Sears catalog left at our B&B. I was astonished at the energy that leapt off every page, these guys were building their own startup! Here's what seemed so familiar:

On a mission with a new business model. They can't stop talking about how they're cutting out the middle men who've been gouging their customers, with pages devoted to messianic rants against the monopolies trying to put them out of business. They contrast their order fulfillment process (dozens of clerks dealing with tens of thousands of orders a day) with the inefficient country stores full of assistants being paid to idly wait for customers, explaining how they can offer such low prices despite the shipping.

The customers are their evangelists. Want to save on shipping? Here's some examples of how you can get $10 of goods for $6 by persuading your neighbors to order along with you.

Information wants to be free
. Want to know more than you ever believed possible about all the differences in pocket-watch mechanisms? Here's several pages of detail that your local jeweler will never tell you, but we want you to understand what you're buying so you'll feel comfortable buying sight-unseen.

Trust in technology
. The very notion of sending money to some company a thousand miles away and hoping they'll send you decent goods in return was a leap of faith even bigger than typing your credit card into a web site. Instead of SSL certificates, they have an engraving of their building and letters from their bankers.


Selling a dream. They knew people weren't just looking to buy something when they picked up the catalog, so they offer a hope of a better life in their descriptions and illustrations. People didn't just want barbed wire, they wanted that perfect farm, and Sears used that to sell.

They were completely nuts:


Like most innovators, they weren't afraid to screw up. Happily I'm pretty certain this dog-powered butter-churner never hit the mainstream, but they have thousands of new product ideas they were constantly trying out, along with really zany ads.


Sure, online ad placement can be weird, but a real human being decided people interested in grass suits for hunting wild geese will also like a nice pram!

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