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Sears sold many things well, just not automobiles

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo by Bud Juneau.

In many of the obituaries of retail giant Sears penned this month in response to the company’s bankruptcy filing, it’s been noted that the company sold everything, even automobiles. While that is indeed true, perhaps more pertinent is the fact that Sears didn’t sell automobiles well.

In fact, Sears made at least two attempts at selling automobiles, either through its famous mail-order catalog or via its many brick-and-mortar stores. Both, on the surface, seemed sound business decisions beyond Sears’s ability to leverage its massive customer base and retail expertise. However, both ultimately failed due to a poor understanding of the automobile business.

The first attempt came in 1908, when Sears – influenced by Colonel William H. McCurdy – contracted with inventor Alvaro Krotz to build and market Krotz’s gasoline-engined chain-drive highwheeler, up until then produced in limited quantities in McCurdy’s Evansville, Indiana, factory. Sears even went so far as to set up a factory in Chicago to assemble the buggies using Somers and Reeves engines and friction-drive transmissions before shipping them out to customers via rail.

As David Conwill pointed out in the November 2018 issue of Hemmings Classic Car, Sears executives – which by then had established a largely rural customer base with its mail-order catalogs – could see that their customers were ready to ditch the horse and buggy for the automobile, but they weren’t at all able to afford the luxury cars that made up the majority of automobile offerings at the time. Thus, they saw something like Krotz’s highwheeler as a sort of intermediate step.

The 20th Century was here to stay, and the automobile was a part of it. A motor buggy allowed farmers to take their first steps into this new world without casting off too much of the familiar all at once. For many Americans, the motor buggy is the missing link between horse and car – even if a family didn’t buy one directly, they were popular enough that the exposure made cars a familiar element in country life at last.

Rural Americans did indeed present a huge untapped market for the automobile, but Sears executives were far from the only ones who recognized this. Dozens of inventors, entrepreneurs, and businessmen throughout the United States were angling to build an affordable car for the masses at the same time, none more successful (or, perhaps, more intuitively aware of farmers’ needs) than Henry Ford, whose Model T hit the market the same year as the Sears Motor Buggy. The latter lasted just four years on the market after selling roughly 3,500 units; reportedly, Sears lost money on every highwheeler it sold.

As large a company as Sears was, it would inevitably dip its toes back into automobile marketing. Sometime in the late Twenties, the company entered talks with St. Louis-based assembled car maker Gardner to build a small car with Budd-supplied bodies, according to Georgano. The Wall Street crash of 1929 put the kibosh on that. Even in the Depression, however, motorists needed tires, so Sears pivoted to tires, auto parts, and eventually car insurance, all sold under the Allstate brand.

By the early 1950s, however, the bug to get into car sales bit again. Specifically, it bit Theodore V. Houser, the vice president of Sears and a member of the Kaiser-Frazer board of directors, according to Georgano. Houser apparently saw potential synergies between the two companies and believed that the Henry J, fitted exclusively with an Alex Tremulis-designed grille as well as Allstate tires, battery, spark plugs, and other parts, could easily be marketed to Sears customers.

Starting in December 1951, select Sears stores and the Sears catalog began to sell the Allstate as a 1952 model, available in both four-cylinder and six-cylinder models. Sears even managed to undercut the Henry J by a few bucks. Yet by mid-1953, after selling less than 2,500 cars, Sears discontinued the program. Georgano blamed a “limited marketing approach,” but Arch Brown likely came closer to the mark when he noted (in SIA #155, September 1996) that customers “didn’t cotton to the idea of buying a car from a department store, or a mail-order house.”

Indeed, had Houser studied the carmaking efforts of Powel Crosley – who initially marketed his own diminutive cars through department stores, but later adopted the industry standard dealer franchise model – he might have seen that customers wanted to be assured that, should anything go wrong with their car, that they could have it serviced by the company that sold it to them.

Of course, Sears had just as long of a history selling motorcycles and scooters, which perhaps reinforces the notion that automobiles are a unique type of consumer product, one that can’t be sold like a set of Craftsman tools or Kenmore appliances.

It’s entirely possible that, had Sears chosen better or more established partners with which to sell automobiles, the company would have found more success in that market. Or, perhaps, Sears didn’t partner with more established carmakers precisely because those more established carmakers knew that Sears’s retail experience wouldn’t translate to automobile sales.