Last Updated: January 12, 2021

At the turn of the 20th century, the retail industry looked very different. If someone wanted to open a theater featuring those newfangled “moving pictures,” they simply had to open the 1902 Sears, Roebuck Catalog to page 156. By sending in the order form with $160.50 in cash (roughly $4,500 by today’s standards), Sears would ship the “Complete Animated Moving Picture Outfit” that included:

  • 1 combined 1901 model Edison Kinetoscope with stereopticon, fitted with arc lamp and rheostat
  • 1 12×12 screen
  • 1 set of stereopticon views, 25 in number, customer’s selection
  • 300 feet of best-selected film
  • 500 posters
  • 1,000 tickets
  • Rubber printing outfit, for filling in dates and places of giving entertainment
Sears revolutionized the retail industry
A revolution for the retail industry!

Everything the budding entertainment entrepreneur needed to start a theater in their home town.

Of course, the Sears Catalog contained much more than that: Anvils, pain medications, yards of cloth, rifles, cabinets, even livestock. All these items were delivered to your door with standard shipping costs printed on the first ten pages of the catalog.

When Richard Sears started his mail order company in 1888, he probably had no idea how much his 500+ page book would revolutionize the retail industry and become a timeless reflection of the changing American landscape. (Little known fact, but during the Cold War, the Soviet Union listed the Sears Catalog as one of 300 books in their museum to teach their people about the American culture).

Why did Mr. Sears concept become so successful?

Between 1880 and 1910, over 50% of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, far from the stores and factories of the city. Their only access to consumer goods was mainly through general stores. The selection was limited, and innovative products rarely appeared on shelves. Additionally, prices were negotiated, often based on the shop owner’s judgment of the shopper’s credit worthiness. The retail industry looked very different at the turn of the century and in some ways similar.

The retail industry today

The concept of standard pricing, standard shipping, enormous selection, innovative products (like the “moving picture” device or the “phonograph”) was life changing to rural America. Even though many of the products were far too expensive for the average reader, the catalog acted as a detailed record of the needs and wishes of consumers through those years.

Does this sound familiar to what Amazon is doing?

History does repeat itself, and even as the Sears catalog changed the retail industry over 100 years ago, other stores did survive — and even thrive. In today’s world, brick-and-mortar companies can take a page from history. By catering to shopper’s impulse needs, focusing on micro holidays, or delivering an exceptional in-store experience, retailers can provide what Amazon can not.

Learn more in our recent webinar: Will Brick-and-Mortar Survive This Holiday Season?

Thriving in a changing retail industry

Often, changes in consumer behaviors are the result of external economic factors such as gas prices, hourly wages or growth in e-commerce. Retailers need to improve their predictive forecast accuracy. Companies need to learn what is driving their customers to purchase. Data-driven retailers should leverage leading external indicators to foresee headwinds and plan accurately for the future.  

With so many possible factors influencing buying behavior, retailers can easily fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis” and is one of the biggest challenges facing the retail industry.  There is no shortage of data available and the seemingly endless number of questions to answer because of it.

By honing in on the end goal, whether it includes marketing spend, regional understanding or better-predicting foot traffic, retailers can focus on answering the questions that matter most. What we are sure of is that it is imperative to improve business performance through establishing an effective data and analytics strategy in consideration of both external and internal data.

Free download - CPG Playbook Forecasting and Predictive AnalyticsWe have created a resource to help retailers get started thinking about best practices for leveraging the right mix of external and internal indicators.  Manage The Future, Not The Past playbookdescribes the 5-critical steps to incorporate the latest in quality data and business intelligence to predict consumer purchase behavior with remarkable accuracy.

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