Sears’ bankruptcy claims South Hill Mall store and Bellingham Kmart

Sears in South Hill to close

Along with over a hundred other Sears stores nationwide, the South Hill Mall store is on a list to be closed due to the retailer's bankruptcy.
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Along with over a hundred other Sears stores nationwide, the South Hill Mall store is on a list to be closed due to the retailer's bankruptcy.

Sears’ filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday included notice that it was closing the South Hill Mall’s Sears store and a Bellingham Kmart.

That will leave Washington with fewer than 10 conventional Sears retail stores (not counting outlets and Hometown-branded stores) and even fewer Kmarts. Liquidation of the 142 stores that are closing nationwide will begin soon, with closures set for “near the end of the year,” according to the retailer.

The notice of bankruptcy, which will allow the company to cut its debts and continue operating, had been long anticipated, and store closings in the South Sound have become a routine seasonal occurrence for the merged Sears/Kmart retail entity.

“The sad situation that led Sears to this bankruptcy was not unforeseen,” Joe Bell, director of communications for Cafaro, South Hill Mall’s management company, told The News Tribune via email. The mall’s leasing executives “have been in discussions with a good variety of entities interested in establishing a presence at the South Hill Mall complex.”

One option is to subdivide the space, though Bell notes there is no announcement for any new tenants yet.

“At the moment, those discussions have not progressed to the point where there is a signed lease agreement,” he said. “The new occupants could include any combination of apparel, housewares, restaurant, entertainment or even educational concerns.”

Stores that have been staples of American shopping for decades are closing in large numbers. Take a closer look at the reasons why. Sears’ filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday included notice it was closing the South Hill Mall location.

Regardless of how predictable Monday’s news seemed, some analysts still were amazed at the retailer’s rapid descent.

“That a storied retailer, once at the pinnacle of the industry, should collapse in such a shabby state of disarray is both terrible and scandalous in equal measure,” GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders said Monday in comments to the retail news website, RetailDive.

The retailer filed for bankruptcy early Monday in a move anticipated last week as its $134 million debt repayment deadline neared. Edward Lampert is stepping down as CEO, but will remain chairman and the retailer will negotiate with his hedge fund for a $300 million loan, The New York Times reported.

Under Lampert’s leadership, many of the retailer’s assets have been spun off into companies his hedge fund has invested in, as the core retail started looking more like retail time capsules with little reinvestment.

Sears, once the largest U.S. retailer, lost ground first to Walmart, which became the nation’s largest brick and mortar retailer decades ago, and then to Amazon, to the point of selling Kenmore appliances and DieHard brand tires on the Seattle e-retailer’s site.

According to an email sent to employees, Lampert said the goal is “to emerge as a member-centric company, reorganized around a smaller platform of profitable stores.”

He also noted during this process: “Our loyalty programs, including the Shop Your Way membership program, warranties, protection agreements, and the Sears and private label credit card rewards programs continue as normal.”

The Times reported that Sears listed $11.3 billion in liabilities and $7 billion in assets.

Jason Liebig, who maintains the online nostalgia website, noted Monday’s news was more evidence of the constant changing face of retail.

“It brings to mind an old quote ... ‘Progress was all right once, but it went on too long,’” he told The News Tribune via email.

“What Sears represented and how Sears changed the face of American consumerism cannot be overstated,” he said. “It was revolutionary in how it changed the face of homes and fashion and Christmas, and can truly be considered a part of the imaginative fiber that is the idealistic Norman Rockwell image of 20th century America.”

As for the company’s Wish Books, he noted: “They are powerful tent poles of holiday nostalgia for several generations of Americans.”

Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, October 15, 2018, with plans to shutter 142 unprofitable stores in the hopes that it can stay in business. The closed Tacoma Sears could face demolition as soon as the new year.

During last November’s ramp-up to Black Friday sales, there was a foreboding that it would be Sears’ last season at the Tacoma Mall. That turned out to be correct after plans for its closure and demolition were announced mid-year.

On the Monday of the week of Black Friday 2017, the store had no overhead music playing, except for a windup Christmas display on a shelf and some other musical Christmas ornaments playing randomly. The Christmas trees on display were on sale, with prices ranging from $74 to $212.

Of the outlets upstairs — a clock shop, a hair salon and an optical shop — only the salon had customers and music playing.

The few customers in Sears were looking at appliances or apparel.

On Black Friday, the mall’s corridors were jammed with customers and stores were doing brisk business.

Sears had more customers for its Black Friday sales than on the previous Monday but its customer base remained sparse. Sale signs were advertising 60 percent off all merchandise.

Overheard: An elderly man talking to a store clerk.

“I always come to Sears,” the man said. “You’ve always been reliable for me, and you always have what I need. I hope you don’t go away.”

The clerk answered simply: “Well, we aim to serve.”

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell