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Christmas past meets the Christmas present

Reeva Lalani

For many, the Sears Wish Book was a cherished part of Christmas, offering a treasure trove of gift ideas. While the era of catalogs has passed, its influence on holiday shopping endures, evolving into the online retail landscape we know today, with Amazon leading the charge.

For generations of Americans, the arrival of the Sears Wish Book was nearly as magical as Christmas itself. Decades before major online retailers like Amazon existed, kids and adults alike thumbed through hundreds of pages filled with toys, clothing, home decor, gadgets, and other trends of the time, circling everything they hoped to see wrapped underneath the tree on Christmas morning. The child-like anticipation of receiving a desired toy under the tree was a regular part of the Christmas excitement. From 1933 to 2011 the “Sears Christmas Catalog” brought many children’s dreams to life. The catalogs were filled with advertisements and new-fashioned toys that children would never have even dreamt of. The initial motivation of the Sears catalog company was to reach out to the remotest parts of America as many didn’t reside near the hotspot delivery locations.

Though Sears was first to market with its trademark Wish book holiday catalog in the 1930s, by the 1960s other catalog retailers were publishing and sending out their own holiday editions. These Christmas holiday catalogs enticed customers with all manner of merchandise suitable for gift-giving, including almost millions of toys sent out per year. According to Jason Liebig from the 2020 KPCC Christmas Edition, “Growing up in the 1970s (I'm 44.), I considered the arrival of the Sears Wish book and JCPenney Christmas catalog a special time in my household. With all the complaining today about holiday marketing moving earlier and earlier in the year, it might surprise you to learn that these holiday catalogs typically arrived in stores and mailboxes by late August. For us kids, the catalogs' arrival tempered the return to school with the promise of the still-distant Christmas season to come. Catalog in hand, I would spend the next four months poring over our family copy, marking the items I hoped would make it under our tree.”

Liebig’s merry nostalgia was common during the 20th century; children occupied their time flipping through eye-catching illustrations of the catalog. Christmas shopping in the age of COVID has largely been reduced to looking through Amazon and ordering what you want which is an obvious parallel to the last century. Nobody imagined that the concept of the Sear’s Wish book would transform the world of gifting to transportation to online shopping. A few mouse clicks have given the Sears 20th century business model a 21st century spin. Now, wish book memories have become bedtime stories from parents to their kids as once upon a time the catalog would be the talk of America. Reflecting modern trends in retailing, the company decided to stop producing the general catalog in 2007 the same year the iPhone was built. As generations passed, many online businesses experimented to execute a simpler way for people to purchase presents with the click of a mouse.

Consumers who have limited options while visiting stores like Walmart, now can choose from millions of items available and delivered to their doorstep within 48 hours. The world has never seen this kind of revolution in technology that online shopping has brought to market. As per a recent Gardner survey, with the huge wave of online shopping, the biggest online retailer, Amazon, has captured 45-48% of America’s online shopping. Currently, people may even shop in their pajamas, sipping coffee within the comfort of their home. Today’s front page of Amazon appears to be inspired by the vintage Sears catalog design. It resembles the colorful graphics that originated from the catalog. As Amazon’s reign continues to rule online gift shopping, the priceless memories of the Sears wish book catalog will always be carved in the hearts of Americans.

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