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Richard Warren Sears
Richard Warren Sears (7 December 1863 – 28 September 1914) was a manager, businessman, and the founder of Sears, Roebuck and Company with his partner Alvah C. Roebuck. He is considered to be one of the great Americanmarker promotional geniuses.

Early life

Richard W. Sears was born in Stewartville, Minnesotamarker. His father was James Warren Sears, a blacksmith and wagon-maker; his mother was Eliza Burton. His father had amassed a reasonable wealth, but lost it in a stock-farm deal, so Richard Sears entered the workforce at a young age, to supplement the family income. After learning telegraphy he entered the service of the railroad, eventually becoming station agent for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway in Redwood Falls, Minnesotamarker. It was in 1886 at age 23, that his career path changed forever: A shipment of gold-filled pocket watches from a Chicagomarker manufacturer was refused by a Minnesotamarker retailer, Edward Stegerson.


A common scam existing at the time involved wholesalers who would ship their products to retailers who had not ordered them. Upon refusal, the wholesaler would offer the already price-hiked items to the retailer at a lower consignment cost in the guise of alleviating the cost to ship the items back. The unsuspecting retailer would then agree to take this new-found bargain off the wholesaler's hands, mark up the items and sell them to the public, making a small profit in the transaction.

But in 1886 Stegerson, a retailer savvy to the scam, flatly refused the watches. Young Sears jumped at the opportunity, and made an agreement with the wholesaler to keep any profit he reaped above $12, and then he set about offering his wares to other station agents along the railroad line for $14. The watches were considered an item of urban sophistication. Also because of the growth of railways, and the recent application of time zones, farmers needed to keep time accurately which had not been necessary until then. For those two reasons the station agents had no trouble selling the watches to passers-by.

Within six months, Sears had netted $5,000 and felt so confident in this venture that he moved to Minneapolismarker and founded the R. W. Sears Watch Company. He began placing advertisements in farm publications and mailing flyers to potential clients. From the beginning, it was clear that Sears had a talent for writing promotional copy. He took the personal approach in his ads, speaking directly to rural and small-town communities, persuading them to purchase by mail-order.


In 1887 Sears moved his company to Chicagomarker, an important transportation center for the Midwestern United States, and moved his residence to nearby Oak Park, Illinoismarker. In 1887 he also hired watch repairman Alvah Curtis Roebuck to repair any watches being returned. Roebuck was Sears's first employee, and he later became co-founder of Sears, Roebuck & Company, which was formed in 1893 when Sears was 30 years old. Roebuck left the growing company a few years later, and Sears went on with a new business partner, clothier Julius Rosenwald, who became president of the business in 1908 upon Sears' retirement at age 44.

The first Sears catalog was published in 1893 and offered only watches. By 1897, items such as men’s and ladies clothing, plows, silverware, bicycles and athletic equipment had been added to the offering.

The 500-page catalog was sent to some 300,000 homes. Sears catered to the rural customer because having been raised on a farm he knew what the rural customer needed. He also had experience working with the railroad and he knew how to ship merchandise to remote areas.

In 1908 Sears made another move forward and began to sell mail order homes through the catalogs.


In 1908 Sears retired and moved from Oak Park to Lake Bluff, Illinoismarker, suffering from failing health. He died in 1914 in his fifty-first year in Waukesha, Wisconsinmarker of Bright's disease.


Sears' birthplace in Stewartville is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sears was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1992.


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