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For abundant of the 20th century, Sears Holdings Corp. authentic American bartering with catalogs and administration food that brought toys, accoutrement and accessories to millions of homes.

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By the time Sears limped into defalcation on Monday, the once-great aggregation was anhydrous and sickly. Decades earlier, it had been dethroned by Walmart Inc. as the better U.S. retailer. Again it was bedridden by a arch controlling with beatnik strategies, and Amazon.com Inc., an amaranthine online archive that sucked profits out of the business.

Sears, which alloyed with battling Kmart in 2005, has struggled through seven years of losses and hundreds of abundance closures beneath its billionaire Arch Controlling Edward Lampert. Its unraveling has asleep $30 billion in actor abundance from an April 2007 aiguille and added than 200,000 jobs.

“It’s an American tragedy and it allegation not accept happened,” said Arthur Martinez, who was CEO of Sears from 1995 to 2000.

For abundant of its 125 years, Sears was a pioneer, ablution brands like Kenmore accessories and Craftsman tools. It alien a archive to about every U.S. home and created its own acclaim agenda to activation sales. Afterwards World War II, it followed bodies to the suburbs, allowance body the malls that confused bartering abroad from Capital Street. It was the aboriginal above alternation to body parking lots and accessible its doors on Sundays.

Sears “helped advance the American auto culture,” said Vicki Howard, a retail historian at the University of Es in England.

The Sears archive broke into the desires of a beginning customer culture, bringing items that were already the arena of burghal activity to the rural population, such as men’s suits, exhaustion cleaners and a “Stradivarius model” violin. “I dreamed a lot with that catalog,” said 64-year-old Frank Szafranksi of San Diego, who scoured it for James Bond toys and G.I. Joe dolls back he was a child. “You could acquisition annihilation there.”

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Many Americans still alive in Sears kit houses, so alleged because they were purchased via the archive and delivered in pieces by railroad.

Sears’s ability went above affairs homes and the things Americans put central them. It created Allstate Insurance Co. and the Discover acclaim card. In Chicago in 1973, it opened the 110-story Sears Tower, again the world’s tallest building; it was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009.

But Sears was absent by alive strategies and struggled over the years to compete, aboriginal with big-box retailers like Walmart Inc. and again with online arcade sites like Amazon.com Inc. It limped into a alliance in 2005 with Kmart, which was headed by a hedge-fund manager, Mr. Lampert, whose beatnik retail action of acid spending on advertising, account and abundance improvements would accelerate Sears’s decline.

“Eddie affiliated a difficult situation, but he fabricated the operating achievement worse,” said Steven Dennis, a Sears controlling for about a decade until he larboard in 2003. “He cut costs in places that aching the aggregation and didn’t reinvest in the stores.”

Since 2008, Sears has bankrupt or awash about 1,700 outlets, including 60% of Sears food and 75% of Kmarts, according to abstracts from AggData. As sales declined, Mr. Lampert afford units such as the Craftsman cast and Sears Canada, which asleep aftermost year.

“Everything I accept done as an broker in Sears Holdings has been with the ambition of allowance the aggregation and its bodies succeed,” Mr. Lampert said in a statement.

“We chose transformational rather than acceptable strategies,” he said. “Some efforts acquired absorption while others did not, and there were alien factors that accept acutely aching the company.”

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Mr. Lampert said his barrier armamentarium will abide to columnist for Sears to appear from defalcation in a stronger position. “I invested so abundant of my time and money in the aggregation because I accept Sears has a future,” he said.

Sears’s troubles were absolutely apparent as smartphone arcade supplanted trips to the capital and the industry slid into tumult. Beforehand this year, Toys “R” Us Inc. bankrupt all of its 879 food afterwards filing for bankruptcy. Yet the U.S. abridgement is strong, and customer spending is advocacy sales at Walmart, Best Buy Co. and Home Depot Inc., chains that are advancing in allotment from the Sears retreat.

There ability accept been no Sears at all if Richard Sears, a 19th-century railway agent, hadn’t accustomed an exceptionable addition of watches. He awash the watches to base agents up and bottomward the abuse band and again teamed with Alvah Roebuck, a watchmaker, to anatomy a Chicago mail-order watch business in 1893 alleged Sears, Roebuck & Co.

The founders weren’t the ones to accomplish Sears a bartering powerhouse, though. By the aboriginal 1900s, the duo had larboard Sears, and Julius Rosenwald, a supplier of men’s suits, was in charge.

Mr. Rosenwald broadcast the Sears archive into dry goods, durables, medicine, accouterments and furniture. Beneath him, Sears became “a full-fledged alive abridgement unto itself,” according to “The Big Store,” a 1987 history. Among his innovations was the “satisfaction affirmed or your money back” policy.

Sears opened its aboriginal abundance in Chicago in 1925. A decade later, its accumulated abundance sales surpassed those of its catalog. In one 12-month aeon from that era, Sears was aperture a new abundance on boilerplate every three days.

Mr. Dennis, the above executive, said Sears was “the aboriginal Aggregate Store,” borrowing a byword that has become alike with Amazon. Unlike added administration stores, Sears focused on awkward appurtenances like dishwashers, televisions and apparatus sets. Its accouterment was added commonsensical than fashionable, with an accent on bluejeans and assignment shirts. It was area parents took accouchement to get outfitted for the new academy year.

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Frank Christian, who formed at Sears for about 30 years starting in 1967, remembers barter lined up alfresco the Peekskill, N.Y., store, cat-and-mouse for it to open. “Some canicule were so active there were curve at registers activity into the capital aisles,” the 67-year-old said.

Industry admiral say Sears buried the seeds of its annihilation about 40 years ago, back it adapted from socks into stocks with the 1981 purchases of the Dean Witter Reynolds allowance close and real-estate close Coldwell Banker.

“That was their aboriginal mistake,” said Allen Questrom, a retired retail controlling who ran abundant companies including battling J.C. Penney Co. “They took their eye off the ball.” By 1985, back Sears launched the Discover card, it had become one of the better U.S. customer lenders; 60 actor bodies agitated one of its acclaim cards.

Sears alternate to its roots in the 1990s, address best of its banking operations, including Dean Witter and Allstate. But addition claiming was brewing.

Big-box food like Walmart, Target and Home Depot were easier to boutique than Sears, and they were rolling out in band centers afterpiece to area bodies lived. “Sears didn’t booty the blackmail actively enough,” said Mr. Martinez, the above Sears CEO. He took accomplish to bank up the chain, including closing the catalog, which he said was a money loser. “It loomed ample in American history, but it wasn’t an bread-and-er proposition,” Mr. Martinez said.

Kmart, too, had been a trailblazer, with roots dating to 1899, but by the aboriginal 2000s it was struggling. It filed for defalcation aegis in 2002 and was taken over by Mr. Lampert, who had bought its afflicted bonds.

Mr. Lampert had additionally been accepting Sears stock, and his account for accumulation the two centered on analytic Sears’s capital dilemma. “If you accept the greatest abundance and it’s not area the barter are, that’s a problem,” Mr. Lampert said back the accord was announced.

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After the accord bankrupt in 2005, the accumulated aggregation started converting some Kmarts into a new format, Sears Essentials. But the food bootless to bear the accepted sales bump, bodies accustomed with the bearings said.

It was the alpha of what would become a accustomed pattern: Mr. Lampert would green-light a project, again bound shut it bottomward if allotment didn’t materialize. That activated to investments added admiral saw as necessary, such as abundance upgrades: Some food had holes in the floors, burst accessories and burnt-out lights.

Mr. Lampert would carve advertising, again appurtenances wouldn’t sell, according to above executives. He would absolute how abundant commodity buyers could purchase, and food would be larboard with abandoned shelves and anachronous products, these bodies said.

The aggregation cycled through three CEOs afore Mr. Lampert himself took the reins in 2013. He ran the aggregation from Florida, administering affairs via teleconference and visiting its Hoffman Estates, Ill., address already or alert a year, the above admiral said.

Mr. Lampertwas an aboriginal accepter that the internet would change how bodies shopped, and he approved to capitalize on the trend, according to a being accustomed with his thinking.

Sears in 1999 was one of the aboriginal retailers to barrage a website and after to action in-store auto of online orders. Still, Sears’s online sales accounted for alone 12% of acquirement in its best contempo budgetary year, compared with 24% for Macy’s Inc., according to eMarketer, a analysis firm.

No amount which levers Mr. Lampert pulled, Sears racked up ample losses. Its aftermost assisting year was 2010. Since then, accumulative losses accept totaled $11 billion, and its anniversary sales accept alone about 60% to $16.7 billion.

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As the business deteriorated, the CEO spun off capacity including the Lands’ End accouterment cast and awash food to a real-estate advance assurance Sears created to armamentarium operations.

Because the spinoffs were to shareholders, of which Mr. Lampert is the largest, the affairs apparent him to criticism of cocky dealing. A agent for Mr. Lampert’s barrier armamentarium says he accustomed the aforementioned agreement as added shareholders and the deals aloft billions of dollars for the company.

Vendors, anxious about the bottomward spiral, began ambitious upfront acquittal in cash, added binding liquidity. “The business was acerbic so quickly, it acquainted as if annihilation we did could accomplish a difference,” said a Sears controlling who larboard in 2017.

In a last-ditch accomplishment to accumulate Sears out of bankruptcy, Mr. Lampert beforehand this year offered to buy the Kenmore cast for $400 actor and proposed a broader restructuring of the company’s $5.5 billion debt load. But the plan never acquired traction, according to bodies accustomed with the situation.

The defalcation filing threatens to put abounding of almost 70,000 Sears advisers out of assignment and bandy the banking aegis of its 100,000 pensioners into doubt. It additionally leaves abounding shoppers after a go-to store.

Gloria Chavez of Berwyn, Ill., opened her Sears acclaim agenda in 1977 and bought aggregate there, from accessories to clothes for her three sons. The 66-year-old said she wouldn’t apperceive area to go if Sears disappeared. “It’s been about forever,” she said.

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