Beaten by Amazon and Walmart, Sears faces the end after 125 years

“I don’t understand the point of Sears, I just buy everything online,” said 23-year-old Lyft driver Shannon Dickey as we pull up to the abandoned storefront of Sears that sits at the top of Ross Park Mall, nine miles north of downtown Pittsburgh “I think their old catalogs are cool, but I just don’t understand the point of Sears.”

Founded in 1893, Sears was once a staple of the American lifestyle. Now after 125 years in business, the quintessential American brand is expected to file for bankruptcy, an announcement that could come as early as Sunday.

In the past year, Sears has already shuttered its last three remaining marquee stores in Pittsburgh. Now, all that remains is a rundown Sears outlet warehouse store scattered along the railroad tracks in an industrial neighborhood alongside the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville.

The so-called “Scratch & Dent Sears” outlet sells slightly defective washers, dryers and other goods, appliances that can still be purchased with Sears’ trademark warranty, and on credit in monthly installments.

Many Sears locations are within struggling shopping malls.

Many Sears locations are within struggling shopping malls. Photograph: Robert Gumpert for the Guardian

For generations, Sears served the middle market of working-class homeowners hoping to buy high-quality products, but who could not afford to make the purchases outright without Sears monthly installment programs.

“Nobody offers payment plans now because they don’t trust nobody,” said Bob, a 15-year employee of the Sears outlet store as he helps his friend load a La-Z-Boy chair into his truck. That said, Bob warned Sears was not to be messed with if buyers don’t meet the monthly payments. “Sears will come in your house though and take that shit back if they want to. Sears ain’t like the rest of them, they gonna come steal that shit.”

However, with the rise of Amazon, the advent of discount shopping on the internet and competition from stores like Walmart, Sears’ target audience has drifted elsewhere.

“I feel upset because I like Sears,” says Mark Vesei, who signed up for a store credit card. Vesei regularly buys tools for his auto detail business in the nearby neighborhood of Swissvale.

Sears tools gained a great reputation among craftsmen like Vesei who saw them as being dependable.

“I used to come to Sears with my dad back in the day because of the Sears Craftsman lifetime guarantee,” said Trevor Thomas as he picked up a refrigerator he purchased at the store’s Columbus Day sale.

The 125-year-old department store operator was once the world’s largest retailer. It has been controlled by hedge fund billionaire Eddie Lampert for some 13 years. Lampert has slashed costs, cut stores and lost millions trying to turn the company around.

Sears merged with Kmart in 2004, at which point the holding company had more than 3,500 locations. Some 250 of its best performing stores were spun off into a new company, Seritage, while others were sold or closed leaving Sears managing around 700 locations, many within struggling shopping malls that face the prospect of another “dark anchor” – a shuttered major store – if their Sears closes. It last made a profit in 2011 and losses now top $11bn.

Store employee Bob saw one upside to Sears’ failure. “When I saw it on the news, I was like ‘they aren’t gonna be no more jobs for me tomorrow,’” said Bob. “Then I was like, ‘let me go buy this chair.’ It’s $100, you can’t beat that.”


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