Economic Color Blindness of the Sears Catalog

Sears’ innovative business model brought unprecedented market access to black customers

Sears catalog I already felt badly in 2017 when the local Sears store closed, even though I probably hadn’t shopped there in over a decade. I felt worse in 2018 when the company filed for bankruptcy.

Part of it was that Sears should have been the best position to become what Amazon has turned into, the category killer. It was because of the Sears catalog.

Now I’ve read this very entertaining article, The Economic Color Blindness of the Sears Catalog. The company “played an important role in circumventing the institutionalized racial discrimination of the Jim Crow South.”

I get the sense that a lot of people in America don’t understand how restrictive things could be. “For example, a black shopper would likely face greater difficulty than a white shopper in obtaining credit for a large purchase when such decisions fell to a racist store owner. The retail store could impose a higher credit price structure on black patrons as a matter of personal discretion, or deny them credit entirely.

“The Sears catalog, by contrast, would allow black patrons to buy the same item by mail on credit, with Sears having little ability to bring race into the equation.

“Black patrons could also be refused a sale in a store if they sought an item deemed dangerous to the racial hierarchies of segregated society, such as a firearm.” But Sears, in the days before more restrictions, could ship guns to any home.

“The Sears catalog circumvented the ability of local store owners to discriminate as it essentially allowed for a faceless transaction that took place entirely by mail. Combined with the expanded price competition it brought to the retail industry” – isn’t that what Amazon did more recently? -“Sears’ innovative business model brought unprecedented market access to black customers — and did so in a way that allowed them to avoid the indignities of discriminatory treatment at the cash register counter.”

What’s also interesting is the assessment by Gary Becker from back in the 1950s that “a discriminatory cultural belief such as racial prejudice also carries associated economic costs for the discriminator.” In other words, it costs bigots to be bigots, a lesson still applicable today.

Sears, where America used to shop

It later gave me an odd case of melancholy, that first representation of fiscal adulthood.

The sad, but unsurprising, news that the Sears at Colonie Center in Albany County, NY would be closing in September 2017 made me sadder than I would have thought, given the fact that I can’t remember the last time I entered the building. Certainly, it was before Sears leased out part of its footprint to the Whole Foods chain in 2011 because I’ve never been to Whole Foods.

After I graduated from college in 1977, I had difficulty paying back my student loans, some low-paying jobs and a stretch of unemployment facilitating that. As a result, I didn’t get my first charge card until 1982. And that first card was from Sears.

I bought EVERYTHING from Sears. The first item I got was a clock-radio; it cost $12, I think. Somehow, it suffered some external damage- something melted the case – but it still worked. When I got married in 1999, my spouse insisted we toss it out, and I did, but it later gave me an odd case of melancholy, that first representation of fiscal adulthood.

Still, there were plenty other items that ended up in my various apartments: a television set that I had for over 20 years; a microwave or two; my first VCR; at least two bicycles; Craftman tools, of course; and countless other necessities, big and small. Most of my clothes came from there. I could find anything in that place better than most salespeople.

In fact, I even got a Christmas tree, on December 24, 1991, which I hauled home on a CDTA bus. I didn’t ask, and the driver said nothing.

Sidebar: Final JEOPARDY! November 10, 1998: Native New Englander seen here, modeling for his company’s catalog sometime before WWI. Two people said, Sears. I knew that was not possible; Sears was founded in Chicago, as I well knew. (The correct response was “Who was L.L. Bean?”, which I got.)

And since I was a good customer, Sears offered me the opportunity to get one of the first charge cards from this new entity that was going to try to compete with MasterCard and VISA. It was called Discover, and back in 1986, it wasn’t accepted in too many places besides Sears, though FantaCo, the comic book/mail order store I worked at was an early acceptor.

But eventually, that Sears store started cutting back some categories, moving things around as though people wouldn’t notice what was missing. The last time I know for sure that I went in there was around 2003, when I bought a power lawnmower I eventually returned – a rarity for me anywhere – because it kept clogging up.

And now, Sears nationwide is in serious trouble. Some analyst I read suggested that, given the Sears catalog’s once-dominant place in the American economy and psyche, the company was in the best position to evolve into what Amazon, in fact, did become, the monster of online retail.

Now I don’t even bother to read the weekly ads Sears sends me. And the latest closures also include the store in my home county, Broome (Johnson City, NY).