Perhaps if you’ve been paying attention to news unrelated to Hurricane Michael or new Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh or the baseball playoffs or the 1,300 point plummet of the Dow Jones Industrial Average Wednesday/Thursday, perhaps you read or heard a story about the possibility venerable, no longer venerated, Sears and stepsister retailer Kmart may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as early as next Monday.
Chapter 11 is not a death sentence. It is a reorganization tool meant to provide management with the time and financial freedom to resurrect a dilapidated business. Macy’s passed through Chapter 11. So did Best Buy. Plenty of other retailers, on the other hand, went from Chapter 11 into Chapter 7—liquidation.
For more than 40 years I have been tracking the misfortunes, and occasional fortunes, of Sears and Kmart as they strived for relevance as societal and competitive realities evolved around them. (Once antagonists, Sears and Kmart became stepsisters as part of financier Eddie Lampert’s design to turn them around, or at least turn a profit for himself, by selling off their assets, including real estate and brands such as Craftsman.)
For 30 of those 40 years as editor and publisher of Chain Store Age, I met with the consecutive line of chairmen and chief executive officers of Sears and Kmart. Each sincerely believed his formula (it was always a he, never a she) contained the magic potion to resurrect a flailing business (that’s not a typo, I meant flailing). Perhaps, if Walmart and Home Depot and Amazon had not been imagined Sears and Kmart might have had a chance. But retailing is an industry that rewards innovation, particularly as it applies to efficient distribution. From better locations to quicker dissemination of products from manufacturer to store shelf to, especially in Amazon’s case, a consumer’s home, competitors outdistanced Sears and Kmart in their ability to meet consumer expectations.
Sears was built with the mythology of the “Father Knows Best” family in mind. Even its one time diversification strategies—Allstate Insurance and the Discover card—reinforced the fulfillment of household needs.
Kmart sought to capitalize on a growing middle class seeking cheap consumer goods in convenient self-service stores.
But if the lady or teenage girl of the house needed something stylish to wear, Sears and Kmart were the last places they would shop. A department store or specialty store or Kohl’s fit the bill. Maybe even Target.
If the man of the house was going to work on a home improvement project he turned to a local home center retailer, that is, before Home Depot or Lowe’s swallowed up their customers, as well. Electronics sales went to Best Buy. Toys to Toys “R” Us—the Sears Christmas Wish Book succumbed long before Toys “R” Us did.
Kids could be dressed in Sears or Kmart clothing. Until, that is, they were old enough to voice their own apparel preferences.
Will Sears and Kmart be salvaged or scuttled? Ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you shopped Sears or Kmart? If one or both stores disappeared, would you notice? Would you miss them?
For most of my professional life Sears and Kmart represented major portions of the copy that flowed through my editor’s desk. I walked their stores across the country. I shopped their stores. As recently as two weeks ago I bought some supplies in Kmart.
Apart from the yawning gap closing the White Plains Sears and Kmart would have on their respective shopping centers, I cannot say I would miss them. I’d experience some personal nostalgia, but, no, I could not say I would miss them.