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Bankruptcy Protection May Be Sears' Last Chance For Survival


Sears was once the largest retailer in the United States. The company owned a radio station in Chicago with the call letters WLS, which stood for World's Largest Store. But now Sears is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Richard Sears started off selling watches in 1886, moved to Chicago the next year and teamed up with watch repairman Alvah Roebuck. By 1892, Sears, Roebuck and Company branched out into other products and put out a catalog, targeting farmers and folks in small towns and using the railroads and postal delivery. They were like today's e-retailers a century before the Internet existed.


NANCY KANE: Sears was like Amazon today. Sears was a retailer of great disruption.

SCHAPER: Harvard Business School historian Nancy Kane told NPR's Cheryl Corley last year that the great innovation was selling everything from toys and tools to appliances and even kits for building homes via catalog.


KANE: It sent the possibility out of seeing, considering, dreaming about goods to all kinds of remote places without anyone ever having to get anywhere near a store.

SCHAPER: The company opened its first store in Chicago in 1925 and quickly built more in downtowns all across the country. After World War II, Sears followed its customers to the suburbs, where its stores anchored shopping malls.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) For you. There's more for your life at Sears.

SCHAPER: Sears' product lines were household names - Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard, even Allstate Insurance and Discover credit cards. Self-styled Sears historian Jerry Hancock told WBUR's Here & Now last year that the company just became too big for its own good.


JERRY HANCOCK: And from that point on, they continually lost touch with that blue-collar, working-class roots that they had established during the mail order and in early retail.

SCHAPER: Sears at first ignored competition from discount retailers like Walmart and fell behind. Hancock says the company then stopped publishing its famous catalog in 1993, right about the time this Internet thing was taking off.


HANCOCK: I believe that Sears sort of fell behind in the technology aspect of it.

SCHAPER: In recent years, Sears has been closing hundreds of stores and selling off its famous brands while piling up debt. The bankruptcy filing today might be its last chance for survival, providing $300 million in financing to keep the doors open for what appears to be a do-or-die holiday shopping season. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "STAR TREKKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.