Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act encouraged Western migration by providing settlers over 100 acres of public land. In exchange, homesteaders paid a small filing fee and were required to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land.
As a result, America now had residents scattered all over the western plains which made it challenging for them to purchase products, and equally as challenging for merchants to reach them!
They became good friends and eventually became partners in the business venture which they named, Sears Roebuck and Company.
While today, 320 million Americans have trashcans littered with mail order catalogs; in 1894, mail order catalogs were revolutionary in terms of bringing merchandise to the market.
However, Sears wasn't the first one to develop a mail order catalog. Tiffany had that distinction, and by 1894, Sears & Roebuck already had competition from companies such as Montgomery Ward Co.
Nevertheless, Sears chose farmers as his target market, as shipping to them was free, and because they were almost totally isolated and had no real buying options in terms of home items such as furniture, and luxury items such as watches.
Around 1891, Sears and Roebuck published their first mail order catalog, offering jewelry and watches within its 52 pages.
A few of the biggest differences between the Sears catalog and his competitors' catalogs was Sears went into great detail while describing his products, and also provided testimonials from other buyers. This was a new marketing innovation at that time that was rarely used in print as it took up "too much space" according to competitors who wished to use that space to sell more products.
The next big step Sears took was his "Send No Money" ads he ran in the newspapers. The idea was people could order whatever they wanted from his catalog, and not pay any money until they received it.
Today this tactic is used often, but in the 19th Century, this was seen as a huge unorthodox gamble. Nevertheless, Sears & Roebuck made even more money by driving even more attention to their catalogs than ever before.
By 1893, the little watch and jewelry catalog had grown to 196 pages and offered a variety of items, including sewing machines, shoes, saddles and more. One year later, another 300 pages were added, creating a 507-page mail order catalog.
At its peak in 1915, the general merchandise catalog contained 100,000 items in 1200 pages and weighed four pounds. In 1896, annual sales were $1.2 million and by 1914 they hit $101 million.
This made Sears and Roebuck a tremendous fortune, while also ensuring people way out in the farmlands of America could buy anything via the mail, from a watch, to a car and even a house!
While Sears today is struggling under one of the worst depressions this country has ever seen, the brand is still very powerful, and the marketing innovations used by Mr. Sears are in the toolbox of every competent marketing expert to this day.
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