I went to a Sears the other day. A few decades ago, that wouldn’t have been a noteworthy event. At one point, Sears was the largest retailer in America, employing one out of every 204 working people in the country. Sears stores anchored shopping malls from coast to coast, selling everything from back-to-school clothes to tools to washing machines.
Those days are long gone. Sears is on the verge of collapse, and some experts doubt it will survive much longer. What went wrong with this former icon of American retail? I decided to head to a Sears store myself to try to find out.
Last call at Sears
My local Sears won’t be around for much longer. In June, the company announced the store, along with more than a dozen others, would close. That’s in addition to the 245 Sears and Kmart store closings that Sears Holdings announced earlier in 2017. Since 2012, Sears has shuttered more than half of its stores nationwide. More recently, Sears told employees it will be closing another 103 stores in 2018.
Once the Sears in La Jolla turns the lights off, the San Diego area will be left with just three outposts of the department store chain. In comparison, struggling Macy’s still has 10 stores in the region, Walmart has more than two dozen outposts, and Target has 20. My city isn’t unusual in that respect. In many parts of the U.S., Sears is down to just a handful of locations. If you want to shop there, you’re going to have to make an effort.
Next: Just how big of a fall has Sears taken over the years?
Remembering an American icon
When I hopped in my car on Saturday afternoon to head off on my shopping expedition, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In recent years, Sears has become the media’s favorite retail punching bag, so much so that the company’s CEO has blamed dire news reports for scaring away vendors. But I’m also old enough to remember when Sears was still a retail powerhouse. As a kid, I paged through the famous Wish Book at Christmastime, and when I moved into my first apartment I bought a mattress from the store. But it had been years since I set foot in a Sears, let alone bought something there.
Given all the doom and gloom surrounding the company, I was preparing myself for a bleak shopping trip. I pictured vacant aisles and empty shelves. What I didn’t envision was having trouble finding a place to park.
Next: Shockingly, I ran into other people at the mall.
The death of the mall?
Reports of Sears’ slow death usually go hand-in-hand with an obituary for the American mall. No one wants to shop at department stores anymore. Everyone’s buying what they need online. People want experiences, not things.
Well, I’m here to tell you some malls are alive and well, at least in Southern California, the place that birthed the mall rat stereotype. The parking lot of the University Town Center mall was packed, and I had to circle a few times before finally finding a spot on the top level of the parking structure.
Dead malls may be a big problem in some places, but this one was clearly thriving. But were these people here to search for bargains at Sears’ going-out-of-business sale, or were they intending to visit one of the mall’s other attractions, such as the indoor ice skating rink or the state-of-the-art movie theater with reserved seating? I’d soon find out.
Next: This Sears looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1977.
A relic from another era
The mall I visited opened in 1977, and the Sears store looked like it hadn’t been updated since. The building bore all the hallmarks of that era’s hulking, faceless department stores. It was squat, windowless, and constructed of sandy-brown brick. Nothing about it was particularly inviting. Notably, it didn’t fit in with the rest of the mall, which is currently undergoing a massive, multimillion-dollar renovation. (The ongoing construction was one reason it was so hard to find parking, I later realized.)
The contrast between the two parts of the mall couldn’t have been more stark. While University Town Center is aggressively repositioning itself as an upscale entertainment and shopping destination, the Sears store looked like the kind of place you’d only venture into when you had to — say, when your washing machine broke.
Next: This Sears didn’t have too much left to offer.
Picking over the Sears carcass
Once inside the store, I was greeted by a scene familiar to anyone who’s visited a store in the end stages of a liquidation sale. Picked over racks, merchandise in varying degrees of disarray, and plenty of “All Sales Final” signs dominated the scene.
But despite the somewhat chaotic environment, the atmosphere inside this Sears wasn’t exactly doom and gloom. The store was humming with shoppers in search of a good deal, and lines at the few open registers were long.
I decided to make a circuit around the store.
Next: Tools in Sears were at a serious bargain.
Bargains hunters swoop in
I started my Sears shopping trip in the department that once drew many people to Sears: tools. I wasn’t in the market for a drill, but with everything at least 20% off I wished I were. Many of the shelves had already been stripped of merchandise, and there were plenty of other people buying what was left. The line at the register in this section was half a dozen people deep.
Next, after a quick lap through exercise equipment, it was on to men’s clothes.
Next: The men’s clothing left a lot to be desired.
High prices and out-of-season merchandise
Men’s Levi’s were 50% off, which prompted the first real deal-hunting of the trip. My husband searched through the piles of denim for pants in his size and preferred number but came up dry. So much for scoring a bargain. He also looked at socks but decided to pass. Even after accounting for the sale price, he thought he could get a better deal online. However, if we had been in the market for novelty gloves and mittens in Christmas colors, we were in luck. Never mind that it was July and we live in California. Clearly, the store had cleared out its stockroom and was desperate to unload whatever it could onto shoppers.
As we shopped, an announcement came over the intercom, urging us to sign up for a Sears credit card. Given the state of things in this store, that hardly seemed like a wise choice, but I had to give them credit for trying.
Next: There weren’t many good appliance deals to choose from.
The appliance dead zone
After a pass by the jewelry counter, where everything was 70% off, we headed upstairs to check out the appliances, electronics, and home goods. Here, the store was noticeably quieter. The chain’s in-house brand of Kenmore appliances was only discounted by 10%. Shoppers were scarce.
Once, Sears was a leader in appliance sales, but it lost its edge to stores such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Best Buy. A few days before my shopping trip, Sears announced it would partner with Amazon to sell Kenmore appliances online, including some with Alexa smart technology. Investors were excited about the shift, making a rare good news day for the beleaguered company.
Next: Some parts of the store were totally void of customers.
A long night for Sears
The general vibe upstairs was considerably more bleak than downstairs. The mattress section was completely free of shoppers, as was the small electronics section. I browsed the kitchen and small appliances, but things were either too expensive (a KitchenAid stand mixer I suspected I could get for less with coupons at a store like Kohl’s) or unavailable (I needed a square baking pan, but couldn’t find one).
The truth was I wanted to buy something at this Sears, but I was having trouble finding anything I either wanted or needed. Finally, in the home goods section, I struck gold. I scooped up a couple of bargain-priced bed pillows to replace our old and worn out ones and then went to check out.
Next: The line for checking out was brutal.
‘You can’t buy that here’
After having no luck finding an open register upstairs, we headed back down to the main level. The line at the checkout by the escalator was long, so we strolled over to women’s clothing. But as soon as we got in the (much shorter) line there, the clerk waved us away. “You’ll need to use a register for Sears customers,” she said.
A glance at the sign above the register revealed the problem. I was trying to buy Sears merchandise at the Lands’ End store within Sears. The retailers might have existed in the same physical space, but they were really two separate stores. As a consumer, the relationship was confusing, and for Lands’ End, it’s seriously bad news. With foot traffic in Sears stores down, Lands’ End is having trouble selling its basic polos and khakis.
Defeated, we returned to the long line at the original register and prepared to wait. And wait we did.
Next: It took a full 15 minutes just to make our small purchase.
The checkout process
Sears has been criticized before for its slow checkout process, which some say is the opposite of customer-friendly. Loyal shoppers have complained about not finding available cashiers when they’re ready to make a purchase. And then there’s the Shop Your Way rewards program. CEO Eddie Lampert has pushed the loyalty program, which he sees as key to the company’s “asset-light” future, where more people are shopping online rather than in stores. But some employees have said Shop Your Way is confusing, resulting in slower checkouts and abandoned shopping carts.
I didn’t see any abandoned carts, but even with three cashiers working, the wait to complete our purchase was long. It might have been because the workers were patiently explaining the “no returns” concept to every customer. Or it might have been that some people were just buying a lot of stuff. In any case, it took 15 minutes for us to reach the front of the line. We paid for our items, the cashier stamped “all sales final” on the receipt, and we left Sears, maybe for the last time.
Next: What will malls look like in the future?
The future of retail
We exited the store into the bustling mall. A few doors down was a Tesla showroom and an Amazon Books. This, I thought, was the future of the American mall. You’d be able to go there to gawk at a fancy car or browse at a bookstore that’s seamlessly integrated with its online counterpart. Then, you’ll go ice skating, head to the fancy movie theater, or grab a meal at one of the mall’s many restaurants (not a single one of them a Sbarro). But one thing you probably won’t be doing is shopping at Sears.
Next: Don’t expect to see Sears around for much longer.
A chain on life support
Obviously, it’s not fair to judge an entire chain based on a single experience at a soon-to-be-closed location. You can’t expect to find smiling employees, well-stocked shelves, and a stress-free shopping experience at a store that’s about to shut its doors forever.
Still, my visit offered a glimpse into some of the problems plaguing the chain. For one, it seems out-of-step with broader trends in retail. Relative to the other stores in the mall, Sears was a dinosaur. Its image was dowdy, compared to neighbors, such as Tesla, the Apple Store, and Nordstrom. Even accounting for the limited selection, the merchandise was lackluster and fairly uninspiring. I could get similar if not identical items elsewhere, probably for less money. But is consumer disinterest and the lure of Amazon the real reason that Sears is failing?
Next: Here’s why Sears is doomed.
What went wrong for Sears
It’s easy to blame fickle shoppers who now prefer to buy online for all of Sears’ problems, but pointing the finger at changing customer behavior is too easy. Sears’ undoing is at least partly of its own making.
When industry experts look at what went wrong at Sears, many zero in on its controversial CEO. Lampert, a former hedge fund whiz kid who people once dubbed the “next Warren Buffett,” owns nearly half of Sears’ stock, and he’s also loaned the company a ton of money to keep it afloat. As one of the Sears’ biggest creditors, he stands to gain even if the business eventually goes under, as The New York Times explained. Critics have said he’s refused to invest in stores, plundered the company’s assets, and has no experience in retail, which have all hurt both Sears and Kmart.
Next: Is there any chance of a triumphant return of the once-great retailer?
Can Sears turn things around?
With the vultures circling, is there any hope of Sears turning things around? Many say it’s not likely. Even Sears itself isn’t terribly optimistic, noting in it most recent annual report that “Substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”
It’s a bitter end for a company that once shaped the way Americans shopped. The company’s venerable catalog was the Amazon of its day. Its investment in suburban stores helped drive the development of the shopping mall. But as discount chains like Target and Walmart moved in on its turf in the ’80s and the company made ill-advised moves into non-retail businesses, Sears stumbled, and it’s never really recovered.
So who will miss Sears when it’s gone? The store’s dwindling number of loyal shoppers. The 140,000 people who still work for Sears Holdings and stand to lose their jobs if it eventually fails. But the rest of America may barely notice the end of the retail giant.
As I walked back to the car after browsing at the mall, I passed two women headed in the opposite direction. “Do you want to go to Sears?” one of them asked the other. I didn’t hear her companion’s reply, but I almost stopped to warn her. “Don’t bother,” I wanted to say. “There’s nothing there.”