This is probably beating a dead horse: it’s Sears article. Again. I’ve featured the declining department store many times on the blog; back in the early 2010s, it was still a ubiquitous presence in American malls. And I last covered Sears just six months ago, when I found an operating store in Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, Maryland. It was one of the few survivors, since a Chapter 11 bankruptcy declaration and relentless closures have reduced the once-mighty chain to a few dozen locations. As recently as before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sears still had a few hundred locations operating. But this has been the last Sears in Maryland for a few years.
And now, I’m back at this same mall: the Sears at Francis Scott Key Mall is closing. But Transformco, which bought Kmart and Sears from Sears Holdings Company in June 2019 (having come into existence just a few months earlier), didn’t wait to gauge how this Frederick location performed through the Christmas season; it made the announcement in mid-December that its last day would be on or around January 15th. Once closed, there will be zero Sears locations left within driving distance for me. It’s also the last one in Maryland. And, since it’s unlikely that the parent company is only closing a single store at a benchmark time like a new year, there may in fact be fewer than ten that survive the aftermath of which was probably a wan holiday season.
In most respects, I don’t blame Transformco: my June visit told me that even this Francis Scott Key Mall location was operating on borrowed time. It was almost completely vacant during my visit in June: during the approximately 45 minutes that I was wandering around, I saw no more than a half dozen prospective customers. And the shelves already had a depleted look; the location was not replenishing that much merchandise and had already completely roped off a few wings.
But now, upon announcing its imminent closure, the last Sears in Maryland has emerged from its multiple years (decades?) of hibernation, with quite a few customers lured by the liquidation-level discounts.
If you think that looks busy, you should see it on a Tuesday morning. Truth be told, it wasn’t slammed, but on this federally recognized new year’s day (Jan 2, since January 1st fell on a Sunday), I could confidently count at least fifty people in a fifteen-minute interval. All the more impressive considering how picked-over this last Sears in Maryland appears.
And the Francis Scott Key Mall looked healthier and more active than my summertime visit as well. Again, it’s possible to attribute the crowds to the federal holiday, amplified by the fact that Frederick—due both to its proximity to Washington DC and the adjacent Fort Detrick as a major employment node—is home to a disproportionate number of federal employees.
Don’t get me wrong: the mall still has the faded air of a retailer that hasn’t received any upgrades since the 1990s. About half the stores are mom-and-pops, including some real oddities like an unusually large venue for rock collectors and a lap pool for swimming lessons. And yes, it has at least one telltale storefront church.
Nothing against Divergent Church, but churches simply aren’t a feature in a thriving mall. So I don’t really think Francis Scott Key Mall is experiencing a resurgence. The high occupancy rate on January 2 may be a direct result of lingering short-term pop-up stores that hadn’t yet cleared their inventory after the holiday surge. But all the anchor tenants are full—at least until the Sears jumps ship in another week or two. (Macy’s and JCPenney are the major ones; Dick’s Sporting Goods, Value City Furniture, and Barnes and Noble are the secondary ones.) Alas, the Sears is likely the largest of the anchors, as measured by gross leasable area.
With all that long-underutilized space, this last Sears in Maryland offers predictable indicators of desolation. Even notwithstanding the minor surge of people seeking extraordinary bargains, it’s clearly running on a shoestring: the staff hasn’t even kept all the entrances available, no doubt because it costs extra money to operate the security and surveillance infrastructure.
And the underutilized cavernous space yawns at the remaining customers.
But, this time, unlike my previous visit, all the lights are on. I saw at least ten employees on the floor, whereas the last time I only counted about six. It’s almost like the announcement of the closure gave this last Sears in Maryland a new lease on life, even as Transformco terminates the lease at this aging mall.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the liquidation sale, however, was the prominent featuring of certain brands.
It really shouldn’t come as a surprise: it’s the “Craftsman” logo, a brand associated with Sears since the department store purchased the rights back in the 1920s. And Craftsman has been a signature brand even while Sears began its precipitous decline in the 1990s; people still turned for Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, and much much later, the Land’s End clothing line, the latter as a store-within-a-store concept that helped breathe some life into Sears’s staid, behind-the-times image. (This 2002 acquisition was more than a bit ironic, since Land’s End has never been associated with cutting-edge fashion.) But the Land’s End relationship terminated abruptly with Sears’s Chapter 11 declaration in 2019, and at that point Sears had already sold its partnership with Craftsman two years earlier.
So why was this last Sears in Maryland filled with Craftsman tools this time around? Back in July I didn’t see a single one; instead it was filled with ersatz Workpro, which used a notable similar logo to Craftsman. Yet here the store was in its dying days, replete with a brand that had made the Illinois-based company a retail stalwart up through the early 1990s. I can only guess that these tools were part of the company’s inventory before the parent company sold the brand in 2017, at which point the terms of Stanley Black & Decker’s acquisition included an injunction for Sears to immediately cease and desist any further sales…with a potential escape clause in the instance of a liquidation when a location closes.
Now that the Frederick location is closing, the closest Sears warehouse rolled out these good-as-new products to continue liquidating one of the few products that helped the retailer achieve some revenue during its sunset years. Or perhaps all these tools even sat in the back shelves at this particular location in Frederick, these last few years.
This is of course pure speculation on my part, but how else to explain why this Sears can sell a product whose licensing rights it sold to another company five years ago? The Craftsman brand is likely to continue long after Sears becomes a twinkle in the eye. But another enduring relationship is less certain.
Kenmore appliances emerged through Sears 110 years ago; though never unaffiliated, the failing department store considered selling the brand back in 2018. Though Sears never sold rights to the brand, it did decide a year earlier to allow Amazon to stock Kenmore products, after Whirlpool ended its relationship to sell its products at Sears. And Amazon worked to integrate Alexa support to Kenmore appliances, indicating that owners can now operate Kenmore with voice commands. Amazon may help salvage the well-loved appliance brand so that it has viability after all the showrooms close, but at this juncture, the owner is still Transformco, the “New Sears”.
Sears Roebuck and Company…such a slow and sad end. There just might a second home for all the different scraps this old peddler has sold over the years. But the peddler himself is likely to face a pauper’s grave. Kenmore, Land’s End, Craftsman—DieHard batteries too—all these will likely prevail. But how can Sears justify a warehouse and logistical footprint with so few stores left? As the last Sears in Maryland, I know of virtually no others in operation along the entire Eastern Seaboard, with the exception of the Newport Centre Mall in Jersey City. And it goes without saying that it’s likely on the chopping block as well. Illinois, the state that bore the company, lost its last location right before Christmas in 2021. How can it justify any corporate presence, even if it put its corporate campus in Hoffman Estates, Illinois on the market a month after closing its last Illinois store? And Kmart is even more eviscerated, with fewer than ten locations remaining; just three in the US. It really really is like that tube of toothpaste that we squeeze and mold and distort to wring out the last bit of content. And—saddest of all—it may betoken the nearby JCPenney and Macy’s.
16 thoughts on “The last Sears in Maryland: a final sympathy visit while in hospice care.”
The Craftsman/Stanley-Black&Decker deal had them sharing the brand for either 10 (or 15?) years, I can’t remember now. Advance Auto Parts bought Die Hard. Kenmore has actually been made by Whirlpool for quite a while, my 2000 washing machine shares part numbers with Whirlpool so I should be able to keep it going for years to come.
I lived in Frederick back in the late 80s-early 90s and we bought lots of stuff at that store. I was very surprised that it was the last one operating in Maryland, probably because the rent in Frederick has to be cheaper than either the Baltimore or D.C. suburban locations.
After checking out the store near Seattle that’s still functioning and the last one we had here in Colorado (Thornton, closed last year) it looks like Transformco still has warehouses of old product that they’re clearing out. You see the same things in all of them – hand tools, a few air compressors, gas grills, patio furniture, appliances, exercise equipment, display mattresses. No table saws, drills, or other power tools. Clothing seems to all be cheap no-name stuff. Talking to employees they can’t order anything, they just sell what corporate sends them. Still kicking myself for not buying the 8′ workbench at the clearance when our stores closed in 2019 because there are none to be found anymore.
As a kid growing up in Houston we bought almost everything at either Sears or Montgomery Wards. They had quality products of their own brands that lasted for years. The part that I don’t think we will ever see again is the support system they had – if you needed a part to fix something or a service call they had it. Americans got cheap and the retailers got lazy, selling the same brands as everyone else. Once they started down that path it was inevitable that competitors could sell it cheaper without the customer support overhead. Sad to see them go but we did it to ourselves.
The latest bombshell is that ALL of the Sears Hometown Stores are closing, after half of them closed last summer. The end of Sears is very near…
Sears emerged from bankruptcy in November 2022 with 22 Sears and Kmart stores. From online news stories, here are the locations of the remaining stores:
Alaska — Anchorage (Home & Life)
California — Burbank, Concord, Stockton, Whittier
Colorado — Fort Collins (Appliance & Mattress)
Florida — Miami, Orlando, Palm Beach Gardens
Hawaii — Honolulu (Appliances & Mattress)
Kansas — Overland Park (Home & Life)
Louisiana — Lafayette (Home & Life)
Maryland — Frederick
Massachusetts — Braintree
New Jersey — Jersey City
North Carolina — Greensboro
Pennsylvania — Camp Hill
Puerto Rico — San Juan
Texas — El Paso, Pharr (Appliances & Mattress)
Washington — Tukwila, Union Gap
Chris, did you get these details from Brostocks.com? That seems to be the best I can find at capturing the current state of Sears. Pretty accurate. The last one in Pennsylvania (Camp Hill) is closing along with Frederick, and the second one listed in Washington (Union Gap) is inaccurate–that was in PA as well, and closed a year or two ago.
I think from Business Insider, which I believe is a “content aggregator”. So I can’t name the original source.
Yeah mine is probably a content aggregator too–I just tried to verify against the reality and it checked out pretty well.
Thanks for all the details, Tracy. If the Craftsman deal you describe is true, it sure was noticeable how absent Sears was of Craftsman products back when I visited this mall back in June 2022. They only sold WorkPro, which conveniently had a similar logo to Craftsman. They have, however, always sold Craftsman products online. You are correct that Whirlpool has been manufacturing the Kenmore brand for a long time, but Kenmore did still start as a Sears product, and Sears forged a partnership with Whirlpool to make the Kenmore brand–a partnership that Whirlpool broke off a few years ago. Kenmore as a brand is under Transformco, at least for now.
I think you’re dead-on right that Transformco is just clearing out its warehouses, which is probably how it decided which Sears locations to keep open: they’re simply showrooms as these nearby warehouses get emptied out. This probably explains why a belt of Sears/Kmart locations survived from Maryland up through central PA into northern NJ.
The service aspect of Sears–with experts in auto maintenance, optometry, specialized home goods, appliances–was probably a feature that could have distinguished the retail giant in the age of online takeover. But Sears had an absentee CEO for the better part of 25 years; if it weren’t for the terrific rates on leases in malls (anchor tenants often pay nothing) or the fact that Sears actually owned the real estate in many of its stores, I bet it would have collapsed 15 years ago, based on how lackadaisical the management has been. I’d be very surprised if I step foot in another Sears before it completely closes.
I have been to FSK Mall; how is it faring?
It’s okay. Considering that it has all its anchor tenants (until this Sears goes away), better than most. It looks very early 1990s, about half the stores are mom-and-pops, and I’d say it’s about 15% vacant. If I were to come back in year, I can’t imagine it will look better than it does now–and it’s not vibrant enough to incentivize the mall management to spruce things up. So mostly just meh.
The Belleview, WA, Sears, which was in a strip mall, is now a TJMaxx. The building has no AC b.c it was built in 1950s-60s. I only went there to avoid return-postage for my Land’s End merch. The Sears in Tukwila, near the airport, is thriving b.c Westfield-owned Southcenter Mall is the largest in WA (139 stores). It’s one of the last Sears stores in the nation.
I remember you talking about that one near you six months ago! And yes, you’re right that the Tukwila location is still operative. Down to about 16 left, and not all are full department stores. I’d be curious if the Tukwila one looks good. Francis Scott Key looked like they were preparing to close back when I saw them in June.
Meanwhile, a Sears in Alexandria VA looked great when I visited back in 2018: tidy, well stocked, lots of marketing bric-a-brac. It was ironic, because the Alexandria one was in Landmark Mall, which was completely dead EXCEPT for the Sears! These nuanced business decisions are weird.
I figured all locations were probably gone already. 😢
I bet we’re down to about a dozen.
when does it leave? we used to go to that mall/sears all the time! you should also check out the frederick towne mall, abandoned for years at this point on the golden mile
I caught this a few days ago and thought, “Huh, I’d no idea such a thing was even possible anymore.”
there’s only one Sears left in PA. Since the one here in Maryland is barely staffed, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s easier to pull this stunt.