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There was a really interesting piece in the New York Times, by economic historian Louis Hyman, about Sears’ historical role, beyond the fact that it dominated retailing for much of the 20th century, looking specifically at how it helped “African-Americans evade the injustices and humiliations of the Jim Crow era.”

It is a fascinating bit of history:

“Every time black Southerners went to a local store, they were forced to wait as white customers were served first. Serving white customers before black ones might seem a relatively small insult, but behind that racial ordering was an omnipresent threat of violence. Products in these stores reminded black shoppers that whites did not consider them deserving of human dignity: Grotesque caricatures of black faces were used as a “humorous” way to sell toothpaste, soap and nearly anything else; far more harrowing, with the rise of public “spectacle” lynching in the 1890s, black people could find the charred remains of lynching victims for sale alongside postcards commemorating the event.

“Waiting for service was not mere discrimination. It was part of a larger world of white violence.”

The story goes on: “If you were a black Southerner in 1900, finding another way to shop would have been a godsend. Enter the Sears catalog.

“The catalog, which was introduced around 1891, undid the power of the storekeeper, the landlord and, by extension, the racially marked consumerism of Jim Crow. All of a sudden, black families could buy whatever they wanted without asking permission. The Sears catalog, unlike the earlier Montgomery Ward catalog, also offered credit. With that credit, black farmers could buy the same overalls and hats as white people, and even the same guns (and farm equipment).
Prices were lower, too. Indeed, the catalog was so successful in part because it brought low prices to the countryside. And flipping through the catalog was like strolling through a department store in Chicago. For sharecroppers who had often never have left the county in which they were born, the catalog was a window into another, freer life.”

Like today - if for different reasons - there were those who decried Sears disruption of the traditional retail order.

You can get the entire history lesson here.
KC's View:
This is a really interesting perspective on history - not surprising when you think about the details, but still illuminating about how a progressive retailer can make a tangible difference in the lives of its customers and the health of a broader community.

It has almost nothing to do with the dire straits in which the company now finds itself. But it is a strong reminder of what retailing can be and should be - lifting up people’s hearts and minds and aspirations.

Like I said, a good reminder.