WESTOVER, W.Va. — There weren’t a lot of shoppers in the Sears at Morgantown Mall Monday afternoon, but the ones who were perusing the wares were quite active.
One man was trying on work shoes. Another was looking at riding mowers.
A sales associate was demonstrating an exercise machine, while a husband and wife considered a purchase for fitness.
Rows of artificial Christmas trees, fully decorated with their lights twinkling, were standing like sentries for the holiday season to come.
Now, it’s about to go away.
The retailer announced Monday that it will close 142 more stores nationwide as it works through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
One of them will be the University City’s local Sears, which has been an anchor store of Morgantown Mall since that complex opened in 1990.
Diane Malone, a longtime Sears shopper from Fairmont, stopped in her tracks in a shopping corridor at Morgantown Mall when she was informed of the news Monday afternoon.
“Seriously? They’re closing?” she asked.
“Well, that’s sad,” she continued. “Listen: I love Sears. You can get clothes here and appliances. We buy Craftsmen tools for our home. I like to hold something in my hands before I buy it. I’m never going to shop on a computer.”
Which carries a bit of corporate-consumer irony given Monday’s news – since Sears was the Amazon of its day.
The mail-order trade was what made the company’s name following its birth in Minnesota in 1886.
It didn’t take long for Sears and its iconic, all-under-one-roof catalogue to become part of American lore.
Clothes for back-to-school. Toys for Christmas. Farm machinery. If you wanted an archtop guitar, for instance, you could order one up from the catalogue.
If you wanted an actual house, which sweeping archways – yes, a true dwelling space built from a mail-order kit – Sears was your supplier.
Online – and out the door
After the shuttering commences, only one Sears retail store will remain in Huntington, as West Virginia Metro News reported Monday. The closings will leave three Sears auto centers and four “Sears Hometown” stores – a shrunken-down version of the mall stories – in the state.
By the 1960s, Sears was America’s largest retailer, a familiar fixture in shopping malls across cities and suburbs. Today, just 700 stores remain, not counting the 142 that are going dark in the days ahead.
After a marquee acquisition of the Kmart chain, Sears over the years has been systematically shutting those stores down as well.
Sears’ sales have dropped 60 percent, or more than $11 billion, according to reports.
Blame it, in effect, on that computer Malone was grousing about, Bridgett Lambert told West Virginia MetroNews. Lambert is president of the West Virginia Retailers Association.
“Instead of the Sears catalog being used – and you got it once a year – consumers now order online every day with the same type of items being delivered to their doors,” Lambert said.
She’s hopeful, though, that the retailer can rebound.
“The goal of Sears through this restructuring is to make the company stronger and to find their foot-path through this new market,” Lambert said.
(Mall) shopping for opportunities
Meanwhile, the pending loss of Sears leaves Morgantown Mall adrift without another anchor store. Belk and Elder-Beerman have also closed in recent months.
Don’t look for things to stay way, said Kim Green, a vice-president of corporate communications for Columbus, Ohio-based Washington Prime Group, the parent company of Morgantown Mall.
In a statement, Green said, Washington Prime Group is in “active negotiations” to fill the retail space left by the by the departures of Belk and Elder-Beerman – and is also “currently exploring opportunities” as Sears prepares to vacate.
“The redevelopment opportunity at Morgantown Mall demonstrates our commitment to the surrounding community,” she said, “while illustrating our mandate to diversify tenancy and strengthen Morgantown Mall as the dominant town center in the area.”
Malone said she hopes that works.
“I like Sears and I like shopping in the mall,” she said. “Especially during Christmas.”
Story by Jim Bissett