Sears is breathing its last gasps in Pennsylvania, a sad end for America’s once-largest retailer that employed thousands at a huge, mail-order complex on Roosevelt Boulevard and Philadelphia-area mall stores.
Just one full-service Sears department store remains open in Pennsylvania this holiday season, and that’s in Willow Grove, while a stripped-down Sears in Camp Hill sells only mattresses and appliances.
By comparison, Amazon has grown mightily in the last year. It now has nearly 60 warehouses ringing the Philadelphia area, many of them opened during the pandemic.
Battered by Walmart, online sellers led by Amazon, and a run of bad management, Sears has been disintegrating without much publicity. This month, Sears closed its last department store in its headquarters state of Illinois and the last one in Hawaii.
A Sears website lists one Sears department store in New Jersey, in Jersey City, and two in Delaware, in Seaford and Middletown. Just a few dozen Sears full-service department stores are thought to be left nationwide. Closures keep happening, the website is out-of-date, and the company would not disclose the current number of Sears stores in operation.
The land of permanent markdowns
In this high season for retailers, the Willow Grove store has the feel of a closeout sale. Posters advertise 60% markdowns.
Sears has scrunched two floors in the Willow Grove store into one with discounted dishwashers, refrigerators, and stoves fighting for attention with ping pong balls, mattresses, tools, jeans, work jackets, pillows, and bedding.
Employees are few. Shoppers mostly cut through the merchandise floor — glancing at the discounted mattresses on the way — to the mall itself, or to use the Sears restroom.
Mark Higgins, 26, said his parents shopped at Sears when he was a young kid. Higgins’ last Sears purchase? A Temple hoodie for his uncle about a decade ago, a birthday gift. His grandmother had a coupon from the mail.
On this day, Higgins was using the Sears restroom. He didn’t buy anything.
“There’s hardly anything in there,” said Robin Mamolou, a Roslyn woman who browsed the Willow Grove Sears store with her husband, Paul.
“We’ve been coming here since the mall opened,” he added. “Sears used to be one of our go-to stores. We bought a lot of clothes here. We’re sad about it.”
Sears’ long lineage
Founded in 1893 as Sears Roebuck and Co., the company grew in part because of its catalog with hundreds of pages of products and merchandise such as Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools. In 1943, Sears wrote that the thick catalog “serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.”
As the catalog took off, Chicago-based Sears power brokers chose Philadelphia “as the hub of a wheel in which reside 40 million people,” as one reporter put it, and constructed a neo-Gothic brick building with a 14-story clock tower as a mail-order house on Roosevelt Boulevard near Adams Avenue. Sears watched it grow into its second-largest plant. By 1926, 126 U.S. postal clerks there handled the mail.
When the catalog ceased publication in 1993, Sears shut down the Philadelphia operation as well. In 1994, a developer imploded the complex. A YouTube video of the takedown lives on, with the commentator saying that nine million bricks collapsed into the rubble.
Sears, though, still had lots of life: malls stores and 26 million credit card accounts. Globally, Sears businesses employed 325,000. Sears operated stores in Philadelphia as well as the Oxford Valley, Deptford, Moorestown, Neshaminy, and King of Prussia Malls, all now gone.
“I am still shocked that Sears is where they are now,” said Fred B. Hurvitz, a professor of retailing studies at the business school at Penn State University. As recently as the mid-1990s, the company had 800 large and mid-sized stores and 65 million square feet of retail selling space.
“When my wife and I first got together, we furnished our place with Sears products. They had an installment [payment] plan and it was good middle-of-the-road merchandise and it was dependable,” Hurvitz said. Among the Sears storied house brands were Kenmore and Craftsman.
Sears mostly couldn’t compete with Walmart, Hurvitz said.
The new ‘Warren Buffett’
But the marriage was doomed when Lampert failed to invest into the core Sears business, analysts say.
Sears divested prized assets, spinning off Land’s End in 2014 and selling Craftsman to Stanley Black & Decker in 2017. After years of decline, Sears filed for bankruptcy protection in 2018 and the company’s assets — stores and other real estate — were acquired by Transformco, a privately held company affiliated with Lampert.
With Sears closing its last Illinois store, Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, told a Chicago television station: “None of us are surprised, it is certainly another sign of the evolutionary nature of retail, but most of it has to do with Sears itself and the decisions they made. But I think we have to be sad and we have to remember what an iconic, not only national brand but international brand this was and the generations it covered.”
Transformco’s strategy for Sears and Kmart is to operate a diversified portfolio consisting of a small number of larger, premier stores with a larger number of small-format stores, a Transformco spokesperson said in an email. The company continues to operate its smaller Hometown Stores and Home & Life stores, which are mostly independently owned or franchises.
Sears still lists four department stores in Pennsylvania on its website: Harrisburg, Camp Hill, Media, and Willow Grove. The Harrisburg store closed this month and the answering machine at the Media store in the Granite Run Mall says the store also closed. Sears, in a statement dated in September, says the Camp Hill store remains open. A phone call there went to voice mail.
Vicki Howard, author of From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store, said that Sears played a big role in American commerce.
Many small towns in the past would typically have a JCPenney, Sears, independent department store, five-and-dime, and a grocer to a community, she said.
“Sears was one of the big developers of suburban shopping malls,” Howard said. “Their real estate assets are why they hung on so long. They really were everywhere.”
Howard noted that Sears ceased publication of its catalog right before the internet and online commerce. Had Sears kept its catalog, Howard said, its transition online would have been easier.