The collapse of an American retail giant

ONCE UPON a time the thud of the Sears catalogue on American doormats brought the possibility of a shopping bonanza. The arrival of its Christmas “Wish Book” heralded the dog-earing of pages with thousands of dollars of imagined gifts. At one point it was the world’s largest retailer. But on October 15th its parent firm, Sears Holding Corporation (SHLD), filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, bringing a storied name in shopping to its knees.

It was the Amazon of its day. From the end of the 19th century Sears, Roebuck and Company sold through its catalogues everything from ready-to-build houses and dog treadmills to men’s girdles and opium. It transformed shopping, shipping its goods to every part of America. Black Americans living in the South could shop without being mistreated at local stores, either on price or service, says Louis Hyman, a historian at Cornell University.

Its collapse in recent years has been...

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