Sears department stores, one of the largest retailers in the world, was founded in 1886 by Richard W. Sears. Sears started out by selling watches in Stewartville, Minnesota. A couple of years later, he moved the business to Chicago which is where he met and hired Alvah Roebuck, an experienced watchmaker. By the mid 1890's, the company was called Sears, Roebuck & Co. and it had began to expand the range of products it offered in its successful mail-order catalog. It was primarily focused on the rural customer, who had a harder time finding products in easy to reach stores, as this was prior to the automobile.
It was not until 1925 that the first Sears retail store was opened at its Chicago mail-order plant. It was wildly successful and by the end of that year there were 7 stores located in the various Sears processing plants in the mid-west. By 1929, there were over 300 Sears retail stores and by 1931, revenue from retail stores exceeded those from mail-order catalog for the first time.
Despite a pullback during World War II, the company did open its first international store in 1943 in Havana, Cuba. When the war ended, Sears again began to expand both domestically and internationally, opening a store in Mexico City. This was followed in the 1950's with a move into Canada. Originally branded Simpson-Sears stores because of its partnership with a local Canadian partner, the division today goes by Sears Canada. Sears Canada revenues by 2009 exceeded $5.2 billion.
In 1969, Sears announced that it would build a new headquarters building in Chicago. By this time, Sears was already the largest retail employer in the United States with over 350,000 employees. The new building, completed in 1973, would become the world's tallest building with 110 floors and standing 1454 feet tall. The building was sold in 1993 after Sears moved its headquarters to a new location in a Chicago suburb. Although no longer owning it, the building retained the Sears name until just recently when it was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009.
During the 1970's and 1980's, the growth which Sears had planned for in the late '60s didn't materialize. Instead the company diversified, getting into financial services and insurance with the purchase of Coldwell Bank and Allstate Insurance. It introduced the Discover credit card in 1985 and by 1992, that division generated over $59 billion in annual revenue. In 1993, the general mail order catalog division, its base upon which the the company first saw so much success in the early part of the century, was finalized closed.
In 2005, with retail sales still slipping, and the corporation having divested both the financial and insurance businesses, Sears agreed to a merger with K-mart stores. The new entity, Sears Holding Corp., is run by a board consisting of 7 K-mart members and 3 Sears members. Among the various appliances brands which started as Sears private labels are Diehard, Craftsman and Kenmore. Its fashion brands include Lands End, Jaclyn Smith and Joe Boxer.
As of February 2013, Sears operates 788 full-line department stores in the United States and Puerto Rico. In these stores it sells both hard goods (appliances, consumer electronics, tools, sporting goods, outdoor and garden merchandise, furniture and home decor items) and soft goods (apparel, shoes, handbags and accessories, jewelry, cosmetics, bedding and linens). Most goods can be ordered from abroad, as Sears offers international shipping and delivery.