Sears gone from Panama to Pittsburgh

A Sears closing sale

By Mark Scheinbaum

MIAMI (March 23,)—Almost 132 years ago a guy named Richard Sears with his buddy Alvah Roebuck challenged conformity and launched a revolution in retailing.

This week the company Sears which also controls K Mart stores warned shareholders it might go bust.

When the two watchmakers started a mail order catalog for watches and jewelry it was the Amazon of its day. There had been other mail order businesses and catalogs but Sears and Roebuck took things to new levels. You could pick up a mail order lawnmower at their store on Avenida Central in Panama or drop off your Allstate car insurance payments at their store in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

The mail could deliver fabric for your daughter’s dress or paint for the barn to your home in Montauk or Missoula. But times have changed.

Wall Street analysts have been told for years by Sears Holdings that the real estate under each store is worth so much money that loss of sales and shrinking profit margins are less important than the real property of the firm.

The problem is that the United States—and increasingly other countries—are replete with empty strip malls, anchor stores, and entire shopping malls which once were jammed with customers.

What is the added value of a retail store with lots of land and buildings, when more people work and shop online, have flex time schedules, and do not crave the movies, restaurants, and sales of a trip “to the Mall?”

Much has been written about online shopping versus the retail store experience. But mall developers and managers and retailers themselves have added to their own problems.

In some cities malls have been overbuilt and Panama may be heading that way.  In some cases security in the Age of Terror is way too lax, where the only armed guards seen by shoppers are the gun-toting guards hauling bags of money to a Brink’s armored truck in the parking lot.

Even at the macro level, sloppy planning and thinking dooms many retailers. In the booming Panama economy a square block of already trendy shops and homes in the Obarrio section was razed for a square block inner city “SOHO Mall” anchored by stores such as Cartier and Hermes and super VIP movie theaters.  Perhaps tenants should have checked the owners and developers who within two years were charged with drug money laundering in four countries and leases, employment contracts, and ownership of the entire venture was thrown into chaos.

In Miami’s super glitzy Brickell area another one of these square block inner city malls has opened with a Saks Fifth Avenue anchor store. Parking and logistics around the mall are almost impossible on a good day, and the shops inside replicate similar shopping experiences offered in the area by Merrick Park, Bal Harbour and the Miami Design District. It’s another case of too many stores and too few walk in customers.

As if to put a big “Screw You!” sign outside Sears, Macy’s, J.C. Penny and other stores, some retailers have defied the doom and gloom forecast of an “end to the retail world”  and studied their markets and prospered.

Burlington, the old Burlington Coat Factory, has placed most of its stores away from the central mall buildings, on perimeter roads, or in old neighborhood strip malls where rents are cheap and middle income shoppers are already shopping for groceries or picking up dry cleaning. With deep discounts and a huge daily inventory turnover of top brands such as Burberry their biggest problem seems to be long lines at checkout. Ditto for Nordstrom Rack, Ross Dress for Less, TJ Maxx and other off price stores that have cherry picked lower rent or lease venues and studied customer income and needs in each zip code.

Back to Sears there are many reasons over the years that the Rolls Royce of American retailing faded as Wal-Mart rose to the pinnacle of expansion and sales. When the gap between top management and Sears employees grew wider and the Retail Clerks International Union AFL-CIO staged organizing drives and NLRB petitions, Sears spared no expense in sprinkling raises and promotions to defeat collective bargaining. For sure union critics would point to the labor movement hurting the bottom line but there have been cases such as Ford even to this day when labor and management worked to save a company, refuse federal bailouts and prosper in tough times.

In good times and bad, Sears failed to tell the “Sears Story” to potential customers. The hand tools, home workshop equipment, and Kenmore and other appliance lines were the top quality and dependability brands. When Sears continued to pay health and hospitalization insurance for most workers called up to Gulf Wars by the National Guard or Reserves, it was almost hushed up—as if the news that corporate money was spent on protecting the families of those wearing military uniforms in service to America might anger shareholders or stock pundits.

The positive public relations value and rally of investor support would likely have done the opposite. The Sears story was a great story. But it was a mismanaged story in recent years.

We live in a world in which dinner is too often the decision to call Domino, Pizza Hut, or Papa John. We live in a world in which once this culinary decision is made one now must decide to pay by cash, credit card, debit card, PayPal or Amazon Prime reward points.

Perhaps the only positive note for the soon-to-be-vacated Sears real estate properties is that some empty strip malls are now rented for motor vehicle and unemployment offices.

Mark Scheinbaum is managing director of Shearson Financial Services LLC in Boca Raton, FL. A former UPI newsman and business magazine publisher. His opinions are his own, and are neither an endorsement nor disapproval for any securities mentioned in the article.