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.