“It’s the first time I’ve been here in awhile,” she said as she browsed the shoe selection, where the shoes were still boxed up rather than out on display.
“I just came in looking for sales. But it’s so empty, and there’s not a lot to choose from,” she said. “Back in the day you could come in and get most everything you needed in one store.”
Easterling said when she told friends that she was going to be stopping at Sears, their reactions were: “Is there still a Sears that’s open?”
Most of the smattering of shoppers in the Jersey City store Sunday were older, and like Easterling, could remember Sears in its heyday.
Many quickly left without finding what they were looking for. A few of the younger shoppers said they stopped by only because they could remember coming in as a kid.
“I used to shop here years ago with my great-grandmother,” said Razeyah Surrell, 23, who came hunting for a pair of pants while shopping with his friend Taryn Reczkowski, 22. They left quickly after Surrell couldn’t find what he was looking for.
“I walked in and said, ‘Wow, this is sad,'” Reczkowski said.
Sears was once a powerhouse
By 2018 the company had filed for bankruptcy. Eddie Lampert, the hedge fund operator who had engineered the disastrous Kmart merger and served as the holding company’s CEO, bought the remains of the business out of bankruptcy in early 2019. He had promised to turn things around after it had shed much of its debt, unprofitable stores and less attractive leases.
Now experts say there’s basically little to no reason to keep even the handful of stores it still has open.
“Sears has been going down the drain for a very long time. There’s no chance of it being revitalized,” said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. “No one apart from Eddie Lampert knows why he’s keeping these remaining stores open. You can’t make the economics work with that volume of stores.”
As for why Sears has hasn’t yet pulled the plug, Saunders said, “It might be that in some contracts or agreements that there is a penalty if he closes all the stores. Or perhaps they’re open because Eddie Lampert has a very strange view of business. He still seems to hold onto this illusion that he can bring it back. A lot of it could be about ego.”
What might have been
Although the company’s demise seems inevitable now, it didn’t need to be this way, insists Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University and the former CEO of Sears’ Canadian unit before the Kmart merger.
He said that Sears’ experience operating its catalog, which had an all-encompassing list of products, positioned it better than other traditional retailers to make an early move into online sales. And he said Sears had better lease agreements than competing department store chains.
“It could have been a rival to Amazon. It had been the Amazon of its day,” Cohen said. “No doubt that Sears would have needed to close stores and consolidate holdings, but their real estate holdings would not have been the albatross they were for other department store chains. Nothing would have stopped it from having a second life as a world beater. At the end of the day, this was all about the incompetence and malfeasance of its leadership.”
Getting a precise count of remaining open stores at the company is difficult. The total of 15 remaining Sears outlets is down about a third from 23 at this time last year. But those numbers come from what’s listed in the store locator on the company’s Web site. Spokespeople for Sears, Transformco and Lampert’s hedge fund did not respond to questions about the remaining store count, the company’s profitability or its plans going forward.
Will the Sears name survive?
The name Sears might survive even if the final full-line stores close.
Kmart has shriveled to an even smaller size.
“It’s tough to make the case consumers will go to those stores if they’re pulling back spending,” she said. “I think that [a recession] could be the final nail in the coffin.”
As for when Sears might finally close the last remaining stores, Cohen said it really doesn’t matter at this point.
“The time of death was 2005,” he said, referring to the year Lampert took control of the company.
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