Holiday magic is hard to find in Sears Canada stores this year. Naked mannequins, bare shelves, and heaps of merchandise cast aside by bargain hunters are about all that’s left after weeks of liquidation.

The 65-year-old chain was once a giant in Canadian retail that anchored scores of malls across the country. But it aged into a relic of a bygone era -- a time when people shopped for appliances, fashion, and furniture under the same roof, in a store that isn’t called Walmart.

Sears Canada received approval from an Ontario Superior Court to liquidate its stores in October. The final sale will be allowed to stretch through the busy holiday season until the company’s protection from creditors expires on Jan. 22, 2018.

Sears Canada’s collapse means thousands of lost jobs. Millions of square feet of retail space will be piled onto a market that has yet to absorb the footprint left by Target’s retreat from Canada in 2015. The empty stores are likely to stand as sprawling, empty monuments to the once-mighty brand long after the logos are removed.

There is, however, one annual tradition that can be held above the ruins of the company’s collapse -- the Sears Canada Wish Book. Even the name “Wish Book” evokes holiday nostalgia. The death of the company’s iconic catalogue opens a void for the countless Canadians who considered it a holiday tradition.

“It was one of those unique situations where a commercial entity actually finds its way into our colloquial speech,” Queen’s University Marketing Professor Ken Wong told “The impact went beyond the financials into social.”

For super-fans like Jason Liebig, a self-described geeky guy who launched a website in the early 2000s dedicated to retro department store catalogues, the Sears Canada Wish Book cut through the annual flurry of flyers with an indelible air of authenticity and charm.

Sears Canada Wish Book 1979

“It was everything,” said Liebig. “If you were a kid, and you loved toys. And what kid doesn’t love toys? You got the entire data dump on the day the catalogue arrived at your doorstep.”

Sears Canada spokesperson Vincent Power spent 42 years with the company after accepting a job while still in school. He wistfully references that fact in his outgoing voicemail message that gently explains he is no longer working there.

“The Wish Book was an icon of what Christmas was in Canada,” he explained in an interview prior to his departure. “We became part of the holiday tradition.”

Fifty-seven cover-to-cover catalogues are available on Liebig’s The online collection starts in the 1930s, and it even includes a page-turning sound effect to mimic the true catalogue experience.

Scanning each volume page-by-page is a labour of love for Liebig. The irony of putting catalogues on the internet, the technology largely behind their demise, isn’t lost on him either.


Thumbing through an old Wish Book is like examining fossilized snapshots of consumer culture that reveal virtually everything new someone could have bought that year.

Sears Canada Wish Book 1957

Roy Rogers toy gun and holster sets, and a remote controlled robot toy that promised, “Young scientists will thrill when they see the robot’s eyes ‘on beam’ and its lantern aglow,” starred in the toy section of the 1957 Simpsons-Sears Christmas Catalogue.

Sears Canada Roy Rogers

The Wish Book name was well established by 1977, when the polyester slacks for men were cut with a “popular flared leg,” and the Sears version of the Atari 2600 home video game console boasted a “revolutionary micro-processor that works like a miniature computer.”

Sears Wish book fashion

The “Out of this World Star Wars” sleepwear for children in the 1979 Wish Book perfectly complement the Millennium Falcon Spaceship with an opening cockpit canopy, fold-down entrance ramp, 360 degree swivelling radar dish, and remote “force ball” for lightsaber practice. For the older kids, black lights and fluorescent posters with “multicolour optical patterns,” and mirrored disco balls were on offer to “add exciting splashes of light to your party.”

Sears Canada Star Wars

The 1991 Wish Book offered zany gifts for Dad, like a baseball hat topped with a plastic fish that “shows em’ you’re an angler with smarts!” And a swimming tote bag that says “Beach Bum” on the side. You could also pick up a Sony Video Walkman (for $999), or a desktop mug-warming coaster dubbed a “stylish addition to any desk” with its “sleek black plastic wood-grain-look top.”

Sears Wish Book Canada 1991


Sears Canada’s U.S. parent company didn’t open its first store until 1925, nearly four decades after the U.S. catalogue business started up. The first Canadian store opened in Stratford, Ont. in 1953.

Simpson-Sears released the first Canadian Wish Book in 1953, a year after the companies partnered to bring the U.S. brand north of the border. The tradition continued for 63 years, until the final edition in 2016.

At its peak in 1997, five million copies of the Sears Canada Wish Book were printed for delivery to doorsteps nationwide. That’s about 40 per cent more than the company’s other major seasonal catalogues.

These thick, heavy volumes allowed consumers to browse and order a staggering selection of goods from home, like the internet does today.

“It gave people in the remote communities a full-line department store selection. You’d get brand names that normally you’d have to drive to a city for, delivered to the most remote parts of Canada,” Power said. “In our peak years, we had distribution in what is now known as the three territories.”

Sears Wish Book 1973 charms

Sears Canada ran a network 2,200 merchandise pick-up locations across the country during a peak that lasted between 2003 and 2005. Local “agents” who partnered with Sears owned general stores and flower shops. Or just about any sort of business you’d find on the main drag of small Canadian towns.

“What the Wish Book did is it basically said, ‘I don't care if you are in a town with a population of six, you can be buying the exact same products that somebody in a population of three million people could,” Wong said.

Jean Rickli, a senior retail adviser at the consulting firm J.C. Williams Group, likens Sears Canada to another company with a formidable distribution footprint.

“Their approach was a little bit Amazon-ish, if we look at it in this day and age. They started off in the same way, without having any brick-and-mortar stores,” he said. came online in 1996. The company was running 110 full-line department stores by the time online orders were added in 1999. Amazon sold its first book online in 1995, and resisted brick-and-mortar sales floors until 2015.

Power admits comparisons between Sears and Amazon are not unfounded -- both are large scale retailers that leverage delivery logistics, and curate the products they want to push in a browse-able format: one with paper, the other with pixels.

“There are certainly some comparisons you could make,” Power said. “Both companies, for example, excelled at delivering goods in a timely fashion, and often at no charge.”

Sears Canada’s annual revenue hit $6.1 billion in 1999, a hefty figure compared to Amazon’s US$1.64 billion that same year. But the four-and-a-half-year-old Seattle-based upstart saw its sales surge 169 per cent in 1999. Revenue at Sears Canada grew less than 12 per cent that year.

The rise of e-commerce was far Sears Canada is too simple, says Wong. He points to other factors -- Craftsman losing ground as a premium tool band, competition from foreign appliance makers putting pressure on Kenmore, and Sleep Country Canada eating into mattress sales, to name a few.

The company’s annual revenues started to slip year-over-year after peaking at $6.7 billion in its 2001 fiscal year. By 2003, the company was openly acknowledging there may be a problem.

“While pleased with our performance relative to some of our peers in the industry, we were disappointed with our results,” then-chairman and chief executive officer Mark. A. Cohen said in that year’s annual report.

Power said the Wish Book was a bright spot in good times and bad, but not bright enough to be immune to the retail upheaval that intensified in Sears Canada’s final years. He remembers the Canadian Wish Book team starting work 18 months ahead of its annual debut every Labour Day.

Sears Canada Wish Book disco

“The Sears Wish Book wasn't just some amalgam of a bunch of products that Sears was carrying,” Wong said. “You really had two big bets being made. One was that they understood their target customer and what they would like. Secondly, that they understood what constitutes a great Christmas gift.”


Liebig said the detail that went into making the Wish Book such a flawless sign of the times every year explains why people visit his site full of old catalogues. Everyone got their hands on theirs at the same time and shared that experience, he explains.

“You would see all these new products you've never seen before,” Liebig said. “It definitely had that sledge hammer-like effect on you. It was really exciting. It really created those singular moments. That’s where a lot of the nostalgia comes from.”

Sears Canada Wish Book 1957 Tv page

The Wish Book’s sledge hammer impact helped bring in an annual surge of new customers. Forty per cent of the people who shopped at a Sears Canada store or ordered from the catalogue in November and December didn’t do so during the rest of the year, according to Power.

“The Wish Book became a bit of an Almanac in a way for the Christmas season,” he said. “Some parents would give their three children different coloured markers and they would circle the things they were interested in, and the parents would get back a rather shabby-looking catalogue with all the corners of the pages turned.”

Liebig said he often hears from people who enjoy the trip down memory lane that his site provides. Teachers are fond of using the prices in the old editions to demonstrate inflation to their students.

But it’s the messages from visitors who bonded with a loved one, or remembered someone special they used to know when an old book was new, that keep him convinced the Sears Canada Wish Books were more than just catalogues.

“It’s everything from, ‘Wow, I sat down my 80-year-old mother last night and we went through these catalogues together,’ or . . . ‘I used to go through this Wish Book with my older brother, and we had so much fun. I lost him last year,’” Liebig said. “That has been really lovely.”