Sears was the Amazon.com of the 20th century — here’s how they advertised products and collected orders direct from consumers for nearly a century.
The history of direct response, Sears’ defining role in modern direct marketing, and how you can apply lessons from this powerhouse of 20th century business to your own products or services.
I recently got a letter in my mailbox asking if the recent wind had damaged my roof. It was signed by a real person from a contracting company and listed that person’s phone number. It promised to help me navigate insurance and make repairs easy.
The letter hit at the right time because — as a matter of fact — some flashing had been blown off and I was considering making an insurance claim.
I dialed the number and set up an appointment.
In essence, that’s direct response. You put out an ad, you hope it hits at the right time, and then you wait for the responses to come in. The leads you get are highly qualified because what you’re offering is directly related to the buyers’ need.
But what if you could get buyers to request these ads every single month? What if they anxiously awaited the next one?
That’s exactly what a guy named Richard W. Sears did when he started a now-famous catalog in 1887.
Direct response began with book sales
Even though the terms “direct response” and “direct marketing” weren’t coined until 1967, direct-to-consumer sales is nothing new.
Back in 1498 a Venetian publisher named Aldus Manutius printed a catalog advertising all the books his press was printing. The catalog would draw buyers directly to his press, ready to order.
A couple centuries later, an enterprising American took the concept one step further.
Benjamin Franklin, first Postmaster General, used the postal system to collect orders and payment for a collection of books he was selling.
By 1896, the Post Office was offering free rural delivery, and in 1913 they introduced parcel post, which made it possible to ship larger items at a low cost.
Sears saw this as a perfect opportunity.
A perfect blend of product, content, and direct response
For nearly a century, Sears shipped the makings of a middle-class life to households across the U.S. It wasn’t until a series of bad business moves and a failure to pivot online that Sears began its slow decline into history.
The Sears catalog was its main channel for sales.
The catalog brought together three essential types of marketing: product, content, and direct response.
It was a perfect place for Sears to bring together all its offerings, run sales and discount campaigns, and advertise to consumers. It was also something buyers wanted to receive to see all the latest and greatest products available, plus tips and advice on how to use them. Most importantly, it was an easy way for customers to make purchases from the comfort of home.
Simply cut out an order form and send it in. In just a few short weeks, your purchase shows up on your doorstep.
Advertising that consumers want
Direct response gets a bad rap.
People associate it with pushy salesmen and spammy ads. Limited time offers and fear-tactics. Cheap products and scammy order forms.
But, as I’ve said before, marketing is a tool. We can use it to build houses or tear them down.
The Sears Catalog is a perfect example of beneficial direct response.
It was a win-win for buyers and sellers. It provided an easy and convenient way for consumers to purchase good-quality and inexpensive goods that raised their standards of living. For Sears, it was a sales channel that catapulted them into the spotlight as one of the 20th century’s most important businesses and paved the way for companies like Amazon.
How to use Sears as an example for modern marketing?
It’s simple really:
- Figure out what problem your product solves for customers — for Sears it was getting modern products to rural locations.
- Build offers around your products or services — the letter I received about my roof was promising help navigating insurance and Sears' catalog showed consumers how they could upfrade their household.
- Deliver high-quality content direct to consumers — it’s as easy as putting good information in the form of a personalized letter or product catalog, either through the post or online via email or social.
Need someone to brainstorm with? Send me a message and we’ll get some time on our calendars to discuss your direct response campaigns.
P.S. Don't walk away empty-handed
Above the Fold is a newsletter about the power of marketing. Every week I send stories just like these straight to your inbox.