If First Lutheran Church, the subject of my previous blog post, seemed like familiar territory, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Here the once-mighty retailer Sears Roebuck and Company—AKA Sears—for at least the tenth time. I first started featuring this retailer over a decade ago, back when Sears was a staple in most middle-tier malls. Even in the late 2000s, it was hard not to notice that the typical passageway leading to a Sears seemed less vibrant than any of the other competing department stores (typically JCPenney and Macy’s). For whatever reason, the “Sears hallway” seemed unable to attract top name, nationally recognized in-line tenants at the same degree as the other hallways. Instead, the Sears hallway mostly had little-known regional brands or mom-and-pops. Higher vacancies too. It’s almost like the bigger names (Gap, Lane Bryant, American Eagle, Apple Store, Sephora) didn’t want to be near a Sears; the low foot traffic was a kiss of death. I first picked up on this trend at Castleton Square Mall in my home city of Indianapolis, but the trend was equally noticeable in the now-defunct Cortana Mall in Baton Rouge, the Quaker Bridge Mall outside Princeton NJ, or a strip mall in Lincoln Park MI (near Detroit) that had a Sears as its prime anchor…and was clearly struggling.
Throughout the 2010s, it was rare that Sears Holdings Corp went more than six months without shuttering a slew of new locations. One wave of closures followed another; by the end of the decade, it was obvious that Eddie Lampert, CEO of Sears Holdings Company, was running out the clock with his vast real estate portfolio, which included hundreds of surviving Sears and Kmart locations. It was difficult for me to speculate which ones would survive each round of closures. After all, one Sears location in Allentown PA was hanging in there, but its appearance was embarrassing: empty shelves, closed-off quarters, peeling wallpaper. Meanwhile, in Alexandria VA, the Landmark Mall was completely shuttered, with the sole exception of the Sears, looking like a fully-leafed branch on an otherwise dead tree. This Sears at Landmark Mall appeared tidy, cared for, and the shelves were mostly occupied. Clearly a priority location.
But 2018 yielded a day of reckoning for the once mighty company: a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, followed by creditors organizing a putsch that ultimately compelled Lampert to step down from his role as CEO of Sears Holdings Corp in early 2019. He founded a new company, Transformco, to purchase remaining assets, following the bankruptcy filing and an additional liquidation of much of the Sears/Kmart portfolio. With COVID-19 seizing the globe in early 2020, compelling most malls to shut down for an indeterminate period of time, Transformco oversaw the whittling of the Sears/Kmart brands down to virtually nothing. Fast forward to 2022. If the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) were to classify Sears using the same methodology that applies to plant/animal species, this formerly ubiquitous retailer would be “Critically Endangered”. At the time that I write, there are about 20 locations left. And one of them is in Frederick, Maryland.
This photo features the directory for the Francis Scott Key Mall, a middlebrow mall with all its anchor tenants are fully occupied—quite the outlier in 2022. The Sears is the only one in Maryland. Virginia and West Virginia have none. And, as one of the surviving few, what does the Francis Scott Key Mall Sears look like? Here’s the interior entrance:
First of all, it still uses the Sears logo from the 1990s, technically discontinued in 2004. But the softer, contemporary logo of thin-lined lower case is relatively hard to find, since Sears locations have undergone few renovations (probably none in most respects). As a result, they retained the iconography of yesteryear. (Of course, in 2022, it’s hard to find any operational Sears at all.)
As for the inside of the Francis Scott Key Mall Sears, it doesn’t offer a lot of surprises for those attuned to this sort of thing.
It’s pretty roomy. Inventory isn’t what one would expect for a department store—certainly not what one would expect from a Macy’s or Dillard’s or Belk, let alone a Sears of 1995. Look at the underutilized floor space in men’s apparel.
Basic understanding of market capitalization would reveal this as an imprudent strategy; a wise department store manager would maximize use of the floor space to display merchandise…at least within reason. A good rule of thumb would be to display as many items as possible without regressing to a cluttered, sloppy appearance. But Sears can’t pull this off. Many of the racks themselves aren’t close to fully used. And the shelving and horizontal displays?
It’s comical, almost embarrassing. A company that has no prospects for growth—that basically no longer engages in any sort of marketing campaigns—does not inspire a great deal of confidence in creditors or vendors, meaning that virtually no brand names or wholesalers see Sears as a viable mediator between manufacturers and the customers. In short, Sears can’t secure contracts with brand-name clothiers necessary to fill its shelves. This is the result: brands you might otherwise find at T.J. Maxx or Ross. At best. Maybe Dollar General.
Notice how poorly lit the display area is in the photo above. Somehow I don’t think this passes for mood lighting. A few portions of the clothing department look okay.
At least they’re not sloppy, as has been the case at (slightly) more successful department stores like Macy’s, which can still secure the good deals with vendors but seem to shortchange the staffing needed to keep appearances. But take a closer look at some of the corners this Sears at Francis Scott Key Mall is cutting.
The lack of variety on a single rack is noticeable. They may offer a reasonable array of sizes, but no variation in color. Even for those obscure vendors willing to do business with Sears, the selection is extremely limited. And this photo captures the low level of light afforded to these displays; clearly the Sears is trying to cut back on its electricity bill, a tactic I’ve witnessed previously at a JCPenney a few years ago.
As recently as the late 2010s, Sears could still boast sweet deals with a few well-known and respected product lines: Land’s End for clothes, Kenmore for appliances, Craftsman for tools. Granted, these had long ago ceased functioning as exclusive relationships, though they certainly were in the past with Craftsman. But at least Sears offered names people recognized and respected. How does this play out at Francis Scott Key Mall? I see no evidence of Land’s End. As for appliances…
Aesthetically it’s not too bad. Lighting is still puny, but at least these bulky items can claim significant floor space. But take a look at the background.
This Sears deploys partitions and a wall of appliances to block away (and blot out) hundreds of square feet of display space that the store simply isn’t using. In other instances, what would historically constitute shelving just features promotional stock photos.
These images achieve nothing except diverting attention from the emptiness. As for the tools…
This Sears still sells them, but they aren’t Craftsman. The dominant brand decking these sparse shelves is Workpro. Not an established name. Sears first codified its relationship with the Marion-Craftsman Tool Company in 1927. And even when the Sears name began to visibly decline by the late 1990s, many customers still turned to the department store for its relationship with this highly respected tool manufacturer. Sears ostensibly still sells Craftsman tools online, but they relinquished their partnership in 2017, selling the brand to Stanley Black & Decker for $900 million. It’s safe to assume that Workpro is not an effective substitute.
What about Kenmore?
Depending on the angle, the presentation is tolerable. But, if one turns a telltale corner…
It’s painful to gaze upon. The bedding and housewares is equally beleaguered. Check the markdown for this mattress.
Was $3000, now $500. But at least the sign with the price tag features a more modern logo. (Not the 2022 one, but it’s from 2019/2020. Close enough!)
Housewares tend to yield good profit margins. They don’t go out of fashion as quickly as clothing, and the technological advancements lurch forward more slowly than personal electronics. While these features should be enough to incentivize a place to jam-pack their kitchenwares section with merchandise (like Kohl’s does), Sears still can’t secure enough vendor contracts to pull it off.
It goes without saying that the place is cavernous and bereft of customers.
A few other people were clearly scoping the goods, but most of them (including the teens in the background of the above photo) were just using the Sears as a means of getting from A to B. As a result, this Sears at Francis Scott Key Mall cannot begin to justify a robust staff. I believe entire premises had five people working while I was there. And, as a result, the few areas where the merchandise is clearly in demand—the great deals on shoes, for example—do leave the place looking unmaintained. Or even ransacked.
And with so little staffing, this Sears cannot even manage dressing rooms, which tend to enable thievery.
Instead of an honest confession that the location cannot support the staff necessary to monitor a dressing room, this Sears uses the bogus excuse of COVID-19: “In the interest of the safety of our staff and customers…” That sort of thing. I’m calling their bluff.
Five years ago, I espied a Sears in the Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia (about 50 miles south of the Francis Scott Key Mall). It was a throwback to the Sears of my childhood: tidy displays, well stocked, it almost felt pleasant and vibrant. And it was in a mall that otherwise was completely dead; in 2017, the rest of the Landmark Mall was completely blocked off. Just a lonely Sears operating in a vacant hulk. (his Landmark Sears location closed in July 2020. Prior to visiting this one in Frederick, I actually suspected that Transformco (the successors to Sears Holding Company) might devote a little time and money into one of their twenty surviving stores. Or, at the very least, I’d surmise some market indicator as to why Francis Scott Key Mall is one of the few remaining holdouts. But, after meandering through the rest of the mall, I just don’t see it.
It’s not a horrible mall, and it’s certainly doing better than the other mall in Frederick (the completely shuttered and partially repurposed Frederick Towne Mall), but the interior isn’t exactly redolent of a place with all its surviving anchor department stores. It looks like the early 1990s, when management last renovated it.
But in the early 90s, it’d be packed. And the Francis Scott Key Mall offers plenty of indicators that it’s on the wane, on a Monday afternoon in early June.
And it’s possible that this isn’t a busy time for malls in general, but a generation ago I suspect it would have been jammed with teens who had just gotten out of school. Not these days. The tenants are a mix of national brands and mom-and-pops.
And plenty of vacancies.
Or fully functional stores that simply decided not to open at this time of day, potentially because they lacked the staff to do so.
I can’t see any evidence that Francis Scott Key Mall will ever be able to enjoy a rebound, despite the general strong economic health of the Frederick region from which it operates.
I mean, it has a church. There is no such thing as a thriving mall that claims a church as a tenant.
If there’s a saving grace to the Francis Scott Key Mall, at least the JCPenney looked pretty good, all things considered. (And most evidence suggests that JCPenney is headed the same path as Sears and Kmart, albeit in slow motion.) But the interior of JCPenney looked like a real department store. And it had customers! Not a ton, mind you, but it wasn’t empty.
Okay, so those lower shelves in the above photo are inauspicious. But JCPenney has retained a relationship (albeit non-exclusive) with Sephora. This location still had plenty of merchandise, and enough staff to keep it reasonably well-maintained. But it also offered one important, subtle distinction:
At the entry to the JCPenney, a display announced specials for Fathers Day! At the time I took these photos, our dads’ big holiday was just a few days away. And JCPenney acknowledged it. The closest I could see to holiday-themed clothes at the Sears?
There in the foreground, to the left, is a child’s elf costume. Christmas clothes on clearance, in June. Sears lacked either the awareness or enough merchandise to roll out a holiday-based sales pitch for Fathers Day. What can one expect, if the men’s department looks like this?
Given the lackluster economic performance of Francis Scott Key Mall, I see no reason that Eddie Lampert (or whoever pulls his strings at Transformco) decided this would be one of the last surviving Sears locations. It looks like it’s biding its time the same way so many locations looked in 2016.
I think this Sears will be toast before the end of this year, and the Francis Scott Key Mall will join the hundreds of others with a vacant department store. All evidence suggests Sears is just running out the clock. Maybe it will survive as an online retailer, where it still ostensibly sells Craftsman and Kenmore. But it shows no evidence of a future vision, as fall as malls are concerned. As a final testament to how forlorn this Sears was, I made a purchase before I left. (It was the last I could do after exploiting it for blogger clout.) Here’s the plastic bag where the clerk placed my purchases:
Celebrating 125 years, established 1893. The math is easy. These bags are from 2018, and the company hasn’t come up with anything else. Because we all know the truth: it probably won’t be around to celebrate 130 years.