Portrait of a Pioneer
While in the library doing research for a graduate course in marketing, I analyzed some catalogs such as Spiegel, Lands’ End, and Smith & Noble. Then I came across two old Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs published in 1897 and 1908.
At first, I read the Sears books only out of curiosity. The catalogs ran to almost 1,200 pages and included a seemingly endless selection of food, clothing and machines. The company sold more than 100,000 items at the time, consistent with its tag line, “We Sell Everything.”
Indeed, the cataloger even sold kit homes, and customers could furnish those homes with kitchen sinks, lumber and even coal sold directly from the pages of the Sears catalog. By 1925, Sears was the largest mail order operation in the United States.
That accomplishment didn’t come easily, however. General Robert Wood, former Sears chairman and the engineering and management genius who built the Panama Canal, once said: “[At Sears,] we had a 100-percent record of mistakes. We hadn’t overlooked a single mistake. We made them all.”
But they obviously learned a lot along the way. The more I read the old turn-of-the-century Sears catalog
the more I discovered important strategies and sales techniques that contemporary catalogers still are using today, such as money-back guarantees, free trial offers and free catalog offers.
More importantly, I came away with a better understanding of what today’s catalogers could learn from the old Sears initiatives. This was a chance to review the strategies and success factors of the catalog from my own viewpoint as someone who lives in the era of customer relationship management.
Strategies, Tactics and Offers
• Money-back guarantee: A quote from one of these early Sears catalogs promises: “If the goods we send you are not found to be perfectly satisfactory, they can be returned to us at our expense, and the money sent us, together any freight or express charges paid, will be immediately refunded.”