buying Bonobos and Jet.com will end up making the company seem like Michael Jordan playing baseball—what made it great at one thing doesn’t translate to another.
At the same time, Amazon is marching through the retail sector with
the ruthlessness of General Sherman taking out Georgia, remaking
shopping in its image. When the company said it will buy Whole Foods, we
could imagine the combination resulting in futuristic drone-delivered Veganic Sprouted Ancient Maize Flakes,
even though Amazon has said almost nothing about what it will do with
the high-end grocer. (Please, at least introduce a new meat called
Amazon Prime Rib.)
Long before Amazon, tech shaped retail, and that history gives us a hint of what’s to come. Start back at the founding of Sears,
in 1893. For its initial 30 years, Sears was solely a mail-order
company, relying on the U.S. Postal Service and railroads for delivery.
But the automobile was emerging as a new technology that would change
society and alter the way people shop. There was now a relatively easy
way to go to a store many miles away and bring items home. Sears’s big
innovation was to build big stores that catered to customers arriving in
cars. It opened its first store in Chicago in 1925 and built stores
across the country as the economy boomed in the two decades after World
War II, luring shoppers who would drive in from newly built suburbs. By
exploiting the tech of automobiles, Sears reigned as the nation’s
largest retailer into the 1980s.