I recently came across some information of how a great retailer got its start and was surprised at the name disclosure at the end. I hope you too will enjoy this and be surprised.
If you were in the market for a watch in 1880, you might not have known where to get one. Of course, you could have gone to a store, right? Well you could have done that, but if you wanted one that was cheaper and a bit better than most of the store watches, you went to the train station! That seems crazy doesn’t it? Well, for about 500 towns across the northern United States, that’s where the best watches were found. Why would this be?
The railroad company wasn’t selling the watches, but the telegraph operator was. Now this doesn’t seem to go together, but here’s how that went:
Most of the time, the telegraph operator was located in the railroad station because telegraph lines followed the railroad tracks from town to town. It was usually the shortest distance and the right-of-ways had already been secured for the rail line.
Most of the station agents were also skilled telegraph operators and that was the primary way they communicated with the railroad. They would know when trains left the previous station and when they were due at their next station. And it was the telegraph operator who had the watches. What? As a matter of fact, they sold more of them than almost all the stores combined for a period of about nine years.
This was all arranged by “Richard,” who was a telegraph operator and station agent. He sold lumber and coal on the side to local residents to make extra money. So he had already been in the retail business of sorts. He was on duty in the North Redwood, Minnesota train station one day when a load of watches arrived from Chicago. It was a huge crate of pocket watches and no one ever came to claim them.
Richard sent a telegram to the manufacturer and asked what to do with the watches. The manufacturer didn’t want to pay the freight back, so they wired Richard to see if he could sell them. So he did.
He sent a wire to every agent in the system asking them if they wanted a cheap, but good, pocket watch. He sold the entire case in less than two days and at a handsome profit. That started it all.
Eventually he ordered more watches from the watch company and encouraged the telegraph operators to set up a display case in their station offering high quality watches for a cheap price to all the travelers. It worked! Soon the word spread, and before long people other than travelers came to the train station to buy watches.
Richard became so busy that he had to hire a professional watchmaker to help him with the orders. That was Alvah. And the rest is history, as they say. The business took off for Richard Sears and Alvah Roebeck, and soon expanded to many other lines of dry goods. At first it was a mail order business, thus the famous catalog (also known as a necessary staple in an outhouse). More than 100 years later there would be more than 800 stores.
Richard and Alvah, both still in their twenties, left the train station, moved their company, Sears, Roebuck & Co., to Chicago in 1893 and began their famous and prosperous business. It’s still there.
In 1895, Roebuck asked to be bought out for $20,000. It was done, but the company kept his name. That might not have been the best financial decision for him!
At first, the company sold wool coats for $4.98, men’s suits for $9.95 and patent medicine until 1911. Sometimes the catalog was given away free and other times there was a charge of 50 cents. The giant catalog is no longer printed, but is available online. Some small seasonal ones are, however, printed.
Now you know the rest of the story about the beginning of Sears, Roebuck & Co.
(Melanie Behrens – firstname.lastname@example.org)
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