Is this the last Christmas for Sears?

New York CNN Business  — 

Tracy Easterling spent about an hour Sunday shopping at Sears, which used to be one of her favorite stores. She ended up with nothing to show for it but memories.

Easterling was at the Sears in her hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, one of only 15 full-line Sears stores still open. Sears was once the world’s largest and most important retailer.

“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?”

“Look at it. It’s as empty as can be,” she said looking down aisles without seeing any other customers, despite shoppers being out in force on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

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

It has been a slow, quiet death for an iconic chain, whose groundbreaking catalog and anchor position at many malls nationwide once made Sears both the Amazon (AMZN) and the Walmart of its day.

When Sears and Kmart merged in 2005, they counted 3,500 US stores between them and more than 300,000 employees. But both brands were already in a downward spiral. After the merger the company concentrated on selling off its more attractive real estate and buying back stock in an effort to prop up its declining share price, rather than investing in modernizing stores to make them competitive.

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.

The company that emerged from bankruptcy in early 2019 — with the overly optimistic name Transformco — owned 223 Sears and 202 Kmart stores nationwide. But less than four years later, it is barely on life support, as the miniscule brick-and-mortar footprint and lack of shoppers demonstrates.

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.”

If — or perhaps when — Sears does close its final store, it will join a long list of retailers including RadioShack, Payless Shoes, Gymboree and American Apparel, that emerged from bankruptcy only to subsequently go out of business in short order.

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.

After emerging from bankruptcy, Transformco bought the holding company it had previously spun off, which includes a chain of franchisee-owned stores operating under the name Sears Hometown. The stores are a fraction of the size of the full-line Sears and concentrate on selling appliances, tools and outdoor equipment.

There were about 700 of those stores just before Transformco reacquired Sears Hometown in 2019, but they’ve been steadily closing as well. About 100 stores closed earlier this year, leaving just more than 100 open today.

Kmart has shriveled to an even smaller size.

A year ago there were only six Kmart stores on the US mainland, and six more across Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. Since then the store in Puerto Rico has closed and there are only three stores left in the mainland, one each in Florida, New Jersey and Long Island, New York, according to Dick Barta, a former Kmart employee who has closely tracked store closings over the years. The Kmart website backs up those numbers.

The holiday shopping season is off to a strong start, and that might help keep Sears breathing a little while longer. But if the US economy does topple into recession as many economists fear, it could be the final straw that leads to its demise, said Katie Thomas, head of the Kearney Consumer Institute, an internal think tank at the Kearney consulting firm.

“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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