Sears at Christmas in 2019

To put it simply, the American retail icon Sears has had by all metrics a terrible decade. Their last profitable year was 2010. The store count has nearly vanished and the below chart from Business Insider is shocking, but not too surprising to see. They also spun off or sold their most valuable assets, the Craftsman brand, their top real estate holdings, and their successful credit card division. This ultimately led to the company filing for bankruptcy in October 2018 and eventually emerging into what they hope to be a new, leaner meaner company that can live on. To get our own perspective, we decided to visit two Sears stores during this critical holiday season. Finding a nearby open Sears store was in itself a task.

image: Business Insider

Store visit 1: Rockaway, New Jersey
I have visited numerous Sears locations over the years and I must admit given the hard times the company is going through, I expected a nearly empty store with no associates, no customers, and little to no inventory. I was pleasantly surprised to see this store bustling with activity, and shockingly check out lines, on a Friday night in early November. Granted, I am grading on a curve, but it actually felt like a pleasant place in a nice suburb in New Jersey.

The store had a well stocked selection of clothing, tools, holiday decorations, home and gardening supplies, and recreation/fitness equipment. The restrooms were clean and looked new. It is no surprise that this is one of the few Sears stores to not get voted off of the company island.

Indoor entrance to the Rockaway, NJ, Sears. November 2019.
Outdoor entrance to Sears, Rockaway, NJ. November 2019.

Store Visit 2: Washington, Pennsylvania.
This visit reflected the sad state of many Sears stores across the country over the last decade. The Washington, Pennsylvania Sears was the last remaining mall location of a Sears in the greater Pittsburgh region and all of western Pennsylvania. The store originally opened in 1969. The store was set to close on December 2, 2019 and these photos and video were taken just 8 days before the close.

Indoor entrance of Washington, PA, Sears, November 2019.
Emptied out, dirty floors, leaking ceiling tiles.
The former Auto Center in Washington, PA.
Video footage of the Washington, PA Sears 8 days before closing. November 2019.

A Future for Sears in the 2020’s?
It’s hard for many to envision Sears making it another decade and it would be a poor bet to wager. Some of the steps they have taken in the post-bankruptcy era include buying back the Sears Hometown stores (which were previously spun off and traded under a separate publicly traded company) and opening smaller scale Sears Home & Life stores in select markets that focus on company strengths (mattresses, appliances etc.). However, even if this is Sears’ forte, the appliance and mattress space is already a crowded and struggling sector that thrives mainly in strong economic conditions. The US economy has skyrocketed over the last decade. If Sears couldn’t keep up then, what would make anyone think it could in a more tense environment? Time, indeed, will tell.

Further Reading:
The Hard Road to the Softer Side by Arthur C. Martinez (former Sears CEO reflecting on his tenure)

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