Houston Chronicle
This March 1, 1959, file photo shows a Sears building in downtown Houston. Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, buckling under its massive debt load and staggering losses. The company once dominated the American landscape, but whether a smaller Sears can be viable remains in question.

Few things change as quickly or often as the shopping habits of Americans.

They once preferred small neighborhood stores, where clerks would take lists and return with all the goods a shopper had requested. Then people decided it was better to shop by catalog, poring over a seemingly endless supply of goods and then ordering by mail.

After a few years of that, they bought newfangled cars and decided it was more fun to drive to a store, even as new highways allowed them to move from apartments in the city to houses in the suburbs.

That led to department stores and, ultimately, huge suburban shopping malls dominated by large retail anchors. But then came the internet, and people began shopping from home again — only this time with search engines allowing them to scour the planet for exactly the thing they wanted.

You can hardly blame Sears for not being able to keep up. What is truly remarkable is how long it was ahead of the pack. Fifty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a retail landscape without it, and the same could be said for 50 years before that. Forty-five years ago, the company built what then was the world’s tallest building as its headquarters.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a world without Amazon.

The lesson here is that free societies, to use a well-worn cliché, always seek for better mousetraps. That reality ought to be a source of inspiration for every girl or boy with a great idea. Even companies that seem as close to monopolies as one could imagine are vulnerable to better ideas or better delivery systems that match consumer preferences.

The chief business of the American people, Calvin Coolidge once said, is business. That’s as true today as it was when he said it in 1925.

" Even companies that seem as close to monopolies as one could imagine are vulnerable to better ideas or better delivery systems that match consumer preferences. "

The decline of Sears, then, is less a tragedy (to those not directly affected by it, of course) than it is a sign that free markets and entrepreneurial skill still work.

Notice we used the word “decline” to describe Sears, not “demise.” The company has filed for Chapter 11 protection under the bankruptcy code. That indicates a desire to reorganize, rather than to liquidate, and it allows the company to keep some stores open in the meantime. That means Sears has a chance, although perhaps a minuscule one, to rise from the ashes, perhaps the way Apple did a couple of decades ago.

Despite the company's current troubles, the rise of Sears still holds a lot of keys to understanding how to succeed. It nearly went out of business in the 1920s, but Robert Wood took over and saved it by devoting himself to the study of data.

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He saw that the nation’s population was shifting, both physically and in terms of shopping habits. He shifted the company with the people by opening brick-and-mortar stores and expanding westward with the population.

That was the first of several pivots designed to stay atop the competition. Eventually, however, the company began making wrong turns.

The secret, then, is to know your audience and give it what it wants before it knows it wants it.

But then, any enterprising young business student with an eye toward creating the next big thing could tell you that.