The early 1980s were a watershed moment for digital technology. Aside from the imminent personal computing revolution, it was clear that video recording could change the way we did everything from watch movies to shop for new clothes. And Sears was on it.
As the VHS-Betamax wars raged, Sears made a bold move into the future of home-shopping. In 1981, the century-old company launched its first (and only) “Summer Tele-Shop Catalog.” On laserdisc.
With a run time of nearly 28 minutes, the futuristic method for perusing the catalog not only offered frame-by-frame listings of Sears products but also short video segments. Some resembled the campy TV commercials, while others bordered on attempts at technology-inspired contemporary art. The synthesizer-fueled clips of models in high-waisted pants riding escalators and eye-shadowed gazes fading into sunsets are nothing short of emotional.
Apparently, only about 300 of these laserdiscs were ever made. Sears shipped them to customers who’d pre-ordered the innovative new Pioneer VP-1000 laserdisc player. Thankfully, an enthusiastic collector managed to get ahold of a copy and upload it to YouTube. Here are the highlights, in chronological order.
Nothing says Reagan-era America like a tight T-shirt with a sassy saying on it. “Don’t Let Your Mind Wander—It’s Too Little to Be Out Alone.” That’s sassy! “Got a second? Tell me everything you know!!” That’s a little bit mean.
Just after the women’s underwear section, we meet a suit by the name of Ed Brennan—the chairman of Sears at the time—who goes into a rather lengthy and awfully boring peek back into company history while holding a giant laserdisc as steadily as he can so as not to bounce reflections of the studio lighting into the camera. While discussing the original Sears catalog, the filmmakers decided to show a close up image of a men’s fur coat. Which is not the first thing I think of when I think of Sears, but maybe that’s what makes it futuristic.
So then things start to get super 80s. There’s a whole sequence of women in bathing suits. This part is trippy because at first it’s an empty hallway, and then the women in bathing suits appear, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s unclear if they are the ghosts of Sears summer catalogs past.
The women’s swimsuit section ends with this woman’s emotionless eyes superimposed over the image of a sunset. There is also guitar music and a soothing voice singing incomprehensible words.
More camera tricks appear in the following section. Instead of an empty (hospital?) hallway, the setting is a shiny new escalator, perhaps located at a “super mall” or a convention center. A group of friends ride up the escalator, somehow changing outfits as one frame leads to the next. The escalator keeps moving until the friends disappear and all that is left is a bouquet of flowers.
“With this new collection of retain furniture you can bring the look and feel of the outdoors indoors… for the romantic look of a South Seas island.”
In the early 80s, Sears started to sell something called “The Freedom Phone.” It was a cordless phone with the range of 300 feet and approximately one feature: A button at the base that would make the handset beep when you pushed it. Here’s a closeup:
Remember those sassy T-shirts? This is basically the television commercial version of that—where one of the main characters implies that his friend is a total idiot and the friend concludes that in fact the first guy is a total idiot. Why? Well, there’s a drone involved—though they call it an RC plane—and you have to fly with your brain. How primitive.
All images via Sears 1981 Tele-Shop Catalog