In 1895 a man named Sears decided to compete with Montgomery Ward.
Sears was a genius at writing deliciously seductive copy for his catalog which, thanks to the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) spread across the whole country. Until WWII Sears dominated the retail business in the United States. His first big break out came when he popularized the bicycle just before 1900.
Shortly after WWII, a man named Walton started Walmart. He had figured that Sear’s success with its catalog business had blinded it to the need for many more stores away from the biggest population centers. He also figured that with more efficient and stricter inventory management, as well as lower prices that resulted from that, he could beat Sears at its own game. He was right, though it has taken more than 50 years for Sears to fail.
As we turned the corner into the 21st Century (and Al Gore invented the internet), another retail upstart named Bezos imagined mass retailing via WIFI with remote shopping and next day delivery. Bezos is today the richest person in the world, having shoved aside both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
What is the 100 year thread? It is not simply selling things. It is HOW to go about doing that as efficiently and effectively as the mechanics and process of the world at large make possible.
If the managers of those sequential companies had remained on their toes, with their eyes wide open, it is quite likely that passing the torch of leadership would have looked quite different. There really was nothing that the successor companies did that the predecessors could not have done IF they had been awake and tried.
Simply put, succeeding generations of business managers have a big advantage in life. Their predecessors gradually became smug and complacent and lose their ability to see changes in the world, which they once had taken advantage of when they started out.
OK – what does this tell us about our world today—not just about selling/buying things—but about how our world can deal with today’s new changes in our political process?
What are the threads of that story?
Americans easily fall in love with buying things—particularly if it is easier, cheaper and fun. With only minor exceptions this is a primarily an American phenomenon.
It is tempting to say that the one thing that is not for sale is love or state of mind. But that is not really true. Today there are online dating and many other ‘soft’ skills about human behavior not just involving sex.
Perhaps the merchandising/retail conglomerates could conjure up some ‘love thy neighbor’ offerings. Imagine discovering that your closest neighbors love the same things you do!? A field day on your block!
If I could subscribe to something like a big brother/big sister program to get to know personally people anywhere and better understand how they think and the reverse, I would do it in a flash.
The thread of the retailing story of the past century is that it may have the potential to pull us out of today’s political nose dive.
The common denominator of all Americans is that we are consumers at heart and we are ready to buy peace on earth and good will to all people.
Who/where is the next forward-thinking retailer who will package that for us?