Sears, the store that changed America, declares bankruptcy

CHICAGO — Sears, the once-dominant retail chain that changed how Americans shopped and lived, has filed for bankruptcy.

The 132-year-old company has been struggling for several years and is drowning in debt. The final straw was a $134 million debt payment due Monday that it could not afford.

Sears’ parent company, which owns Sears and Kmart, is among dozens of prominent retailers to declare bankruptcy in the era of Amazon.

The filing in federal bankruptcy court in New York came just after midnight early hours of Monday. The company issued a statement saying it intends to stay in business, keeping stores which are profitable open, along with the Sears and Kmart online shopping sites. But it said it looking for a buyer for a large number of its remaining stores and that it will close at least an additional 142 stores near the end of this year, in additional to the 46 store closing already planned for next month.

Sears has been caught under the weight of its massive debt load and dwindling cash reserves. Over the decade, Sears sold many of its most valuable real estate and other assets to raise the cash it needs to survive.

It ditched Lands End in 2014. Three years later Sears dumped the Craftsman brand, which it had sold exclusively. Sears has been looking for a buyer for its Kenmore brand of appliances for years. The only buyer it could find was Eddie Lampert, its chairman and majority shareholder. He offered $400 million for Kenmore, but the Sears board never accepted the offer.

By September, Sears’ market value had fallen below $100 million, less than quarter of the value of Kenmore itself.

Sears has been struggling to survive for years. It warned investors last year there was”substantial doubt” it would be able to stay in business. It has lost $11.7 billion since 2010, its last profitable year. Sales have plunged 60% since then. The company shuttered more than 2,600 stores over the past 13 years.

With the handwriting on the wall that a bankruptcy was imminent, suppliers demanded Sears pay cash up front for the items in its stores, putting it an even greater competitive disadvantage with other retailers.

Whirlpool, which had started in business more than a century ago selling its appliances at Sears, pulled its various brands out of Sears and Kmart stores in 2017. Once the dominant appliance retailer in the country, Sears accounted for only 3% of Whirlpool’s sales worldwide last year.

In September, Lampert proposed that Sears restructure its finances without filing bankruptcy. But he warned that the company was running out the cash. The company’s stock quickly fell below $1 a share for the first time in its history.

Creditors opted instead to try their hand in bankruptcy court. Without a deal and with $130 million in debt payments due Monday, Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The brand that shaped a nation

Sears was once the nation’s largest retailer and its largest employer. In its heyday it was both the Walmart and Amazon of its time.

Formed in 1886 by railroad station agent Richard Sears, the company started as a watch business in North Redwood, Minnesota. Sears moved to Chicago in 1887, and he hired watchmaker Alvah Roebuck as his partner. The first Sears Roebuck catalog, which sold watches and jewelry, was printed in 1896.

The Sears catalog was the way many Americans first started to buy mass produced goods. That was an enormous shift for people who lived on farms and in small towns and made many of the goods they needed on their own, including clothes and furniture.

Sears’ stores helped reshape America, drawing shoppers away from the traditional Main Street merchants. Sears brought people into malls, which helped to lead to the suburbanization of post-World War II America. Its Kenmore appliances introduced many American homes to labor saving devices that changed family dynamics. Its Craftsman tools and their lifetime guarantees were a mainstay of middle-class America.

Sears truly changed America.

But long before the rise of Amazon and online shopping, Sears was struggling to keep up with changing shopping habits of Americans. Big box retailers such as Walmart beat it on both price and merchandise selection.

In 1999, it was booted out of the Dow Jones industrial average, where it had been for 75 years. Big box rival Home Depot took its place.

Sears and Kmart merged to form Sears Holdings in 2005. At the time, they had 3,500 US stores between them. They have fewer than 900 today.

In July, Sears closed the last store in Chicago, once its hometown. In August the company announced another 46 store closings. The company had 89,000 employees as of February. That’s down from 317,000 US employees in early 2006, soon after the merger.