This could be the last holiday season for Sears

By Andy Kriege, YSN

Sears, the iconic department store chain and onetime world’s largest retailer, is down to just a handful of stores that remain open this holiday season.  

What’s Left?

Getting a precise count of remaining Sears stores is challenging at best. According to the retailer’s website, 15 full-line Sears stores are still in operation, down from 23 locations a year ago. In addition, there remains an ever-dwindling number of smaller, independently-owned, franchised Sears Hometown stores that are still open for business.

The Beginning of the End

For Sears, it has been a slow, painful, albeit quiet slide into oblivion for the once-mighty retailer. 

When hedge fund owner Eddie Lampert merged Sears with Kmart in 2005, the combined company numbered 3,500 stores and employed more than 300,000 associates. However, both brands were already in a downward spiral and store closures quickly followed. In an effort to prop up its declining stock, the newly formed parent concentrated on squeezing money out of its real estate and selling off iconic brands like Craftsman and DieHard, rather than investing in maintaining — let alone modernizing — its stores.

See: Sears Whittles Down Store Count

By 2018 the company filed for bankruptcy protection. A year later it emerged from Chapter 11 with only 223 Sears stores and dark clouds overhead. Sears found itself mired in lawsuits brought by creditors and suppliers waiting to get paid for their goods and services. Critical capital that was needed to keep the stores open languished in court.

Fast-Forward to Today

Scarcely four years following its bankruptcy, the once-formidable giant is on the brink of brick-and-mortar extinction, with less than 20 stores still in operation and closures announced almost weekly.

Not So Long Ago

Sears was once without a doubt a groundbreaking retailer. It possessed a massive product catalog and an anchor position at nearly every mall across the country, making it both the Amazon and the Walmart of the 20th century.

Generations of Americans eagerly awaited Sears’ thousand-page “wish book” that came in the mail, filled with every conceivable product you could ever want, all in one place. For those too young to remember, try to imagine Amazon including everything it offers in a single print catalog and mailing it to every home in the country up to three times a year. 

Related: From Sears to Gears

At one point, Sears was both the largest employer and the largest publisher in the country (think 40 million catalogs at 1,000+ pages). It was also the largest, most formidable retailer that ever came into existence. It sold more products — including appliances — to more people than any other retailer in the history of the world. 

Sears was everywhere. There were mall stores, rural catalog stores, consumer credit cards, insurance, personal investing, roofing, auto shops and service technicians, among other offshoots. In many ways, Sears invented multichannel retailing long before Amazon joined the game. It’s ironic that the company’s last home-delivered catalog was published in 1993, just one year before Amazon was founded. 

What Happened?

It may now seem like a distant memory, but there was a time not that long ago when Sears seemed invincible. It not only defined modern retailing but also invented multichannel distribution, private-label branding (including its best-selling Kenmore appliance brand) and so much more. So how could a venerable, 129-year-old brand with roots in virtually every community fall from grace so swiftly? 

Experts say that Sears struggled to compete with its online rivals, whereas other department stores like Macy’s and Kohl’s made a concerted effort to rebuild their businesses for the digital age.

Sears lost its way because it lost touch with its shoppers and its local markets and failed to embrace the transformational changes in retail. Sears was an integral part of the fabric of America until cost-cutting measures and centralized decision-making began to erode the connection its brand had with its customers. 

In short, it simply lost the ability to connect with consumers’ needs, wants and desire to purchase what they want, when they want it and how they want to buy it.

The lesson from the rise and fall of the once venerable Sears is clear: No matter how big and successful your company is, if you continue to do business the same way for decades, you are doomed to fail.

Related: The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall

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