This is what the denouement looks like.
At the Sears store in the Freehold Raceway Mall in New Jersey, the parking lot level floor was almost entirely denuded of merchandise. Huge chunks of space sat idle behind blue partitions. The barriers concealed pallets bearing unwrapped fixtures and stacks of unopened boxes of indeterminate provenance.
There was a handsome and sizable run of fresh shelving in place for a shoe department. It was as-yet unstocked and it will not be filled with Sears products.
Signs near the entry points read: “Pardon our dust,” and “We’re open to serve you during our remodel.” One directed at customers who might have stopped by in search of Lands’ End merchandise advised: “We will be leaving this location soon.”
Two days before my visit, Sears Holdings had announced that the Freehold store was one of nine being folded into a new REIT under a joint venture with The Macerich Company, a real estate investment trust focused on regional malls throughout the United States. Space in some of those stores might wind up getting leased out to other retailers, according to the company statement.
Apparently, they got a head start on the project in Freehold.
Macerich put $150 million in cash into the JV, which has been distributed to Sears Holdings. This is the latest in a series of moves by the parent company of Sears and Kmart to squeeze cash from its real estate. A few weeks earlier, Sears Holdings formed a REIT involving 254 of the retailer’s properties in order to generate $2.5 billion.
And it began renting out its store space to other retailers last year. UK discount fashion retailer Primark this year will roll into at least seven locations — including Freehold, where it is reportedly taking more than 66,000 square feet. Other Sears lessees around the country include Dick’s Sporting Goods (perhaps that’s what all those shoe racks are for in the Freehold unit?), and Sears Holdings chairman Eddie Lampert has suggested additional tenants may include Whole Foods, Nordstrom Rack and West Elm.
As for Sears itself? At Freehold, everything looks to be moving into the underground floor. During my visit (if you want visuals, see the May 3 entry on our Facebook page), some sections of the home department were thinly stocked, to put it kindly. One assumes that’s in preparation for an entire overhaul of the floor as Sears relocates some of the categories that had been carried in the leased space.
Meanwhile, upstairs a lonely jewelry counter remained intact, although merchandise was being cleared out at 75% off. There were a few racks of denims and some shirts along with a single rack of women’s bras. Near the check-out counter, curiously, sat a small stand of candy. A throw-away space filler or a sign of things to come? Who can say.
This we do know. Between the leases and the store closings, one of the country’s oldest retailers is slowly fading away. This is not the final chapter, but it sure feels like the end of the story is coming into view.