Before we had Amazon and curbside pick-up, before we even had shopping malls, Americans in the late 1800s relied on mail-order catalogs from stores like Montgomery Ward to purchase goods. Montgomery Ward & Co. was a staple department store for over 125 years until one day they all shut down and the stores were left abandoned. So what happened to all the Montgomery Ward stores?
History of Montgomery Ward
Founded by Aaron Montgomery Ward in 1872 in Chicago, Illinois, Ward, had envisioned opening the mail-order business after years of working as a traveling salesman in rural communities. He noticed that folks living in rural areas wanted to purchase "city" goods. By eliminating the middle man, Ward would be able to ship the goods to rural customers by train. The first Montgomery Ward catalog featured only 163 items for sale and a simple price list.
By 1883 the catalog had grown to 240 pages and 10,000 items. Montgomery Ward was growing, but so was the catalog business. In 1896 Sears, Roebuck, & Co. introduced their first catalog and competition grew fierce as the two businesses battled it out into the 20th century.
Opening Retail Stores
After Aaron Ward, the founder passed in 1913, the business passed through three different owners due to various deaths between 1917 and 1920. It wasn't until 1926 that the catalog company decided to open up a retail store in Plymouth, Indiana. The opening of the retail outlets were part of an aggressive strategy to compete with other retailers such as JCPenney. By 1929 there were more than 531 locations.
Like most businesses, Montgomery Ward was hit deeply during the Great Depression. Major investors, including J.P Morgan, hired on Sewell Avery as the company's new president to push sales in the stores rather than the catalogs. The focus on retail merchandising boosted sales and by the end of the the 1930s Montgomery Ward was one of the United States largest retailers.
Inventing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Did you know Rudolph was invented to help sell housewares? Created by Robert L. May, the little Christmas reindeer poem was created as part of a promotional campaign in 1939. In 1946, the store distributed six million copies of the poem as a storybook. Today the story is a holiday classic.
After World War II the brand name found it hard to complete with other retailers. They started afloat but in the 190s retailers like Target and Walmart started to take over. In 1997 it filed for bankruptcy and by 2000 it closed its remaining 250 retail outlets and laid off its 37,000 employees.
But its not completely gone.
In 2004 catalog marketer Direct Marketing Services Inc. purchased the intellectual rights of the company and opened up an online retailer using the name, Wards. Still offering its famous buy now, pay later, motto, the online shop sells everything from home decor to furniture.