It’s the last Sears store operating in Chicago. But considering the woeful financial health of its owner, you have to wonder: How long can it stick around?
It’s a question that hovers like a fog over the Northwest Side’s Portage Park neighborhood, where Sears has been a retail standard-bearer at Six Corners since 1938. This week, Sears Holdings Corp. said it’s trying to refinance more than $1 billion in debt, but if it fails then all options — and presumably that includes more store closings — are on the table.
Sears says it has no plans to close the store, adding that it looks “forward to continuing to serve our members and customers on Chicago’s Northwest side,” according to an email sent to me from Howard Riefs, a Sears spokesman.
Nonetheless, neighborhood business operators and activists are concerned that if the store does shut down, it would be a significant blow to Six Corners’ ongoing economic revival efforts.
Paid Post WHAT'S THIS?
Order the Peloton bike and take $100 off accessories. Gearing up just got easier.
Sponsored by Peloton
Limited time offer: Get $100 off accessories when you buy the Peloton bike.
“I wish I could say that Sears is going to be there well into the future,” said Ald. John Arena, whose 45th Ward includes Six Corners. “But we know Sears is resetting the gauges and there are a whole lot of possibilities.”
In the halcyon Big Store era, the Portage Park store was a beehive of commerce, well-staffed and deeply stocked with clothes, appliances, hardware and more — backing up the company’s longtime slogan, “Sears has everything.”
It even offered up a Sears version of neighborhood art: For years, the three-level store showcased elaborate, holiday presentations — Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Labor Day and so on — within its two-story picture window display above the main entrance.
These days, it’s a different experience. On a recent evening visit, the first thing I noticed was the “A” in the large, illuminated “SEARS” sign outside the store’s side entrance was burned out.
Inside, the floors were a neat and clean jumble of displays with a small number of shoppers milling about or at the centralized checkout islands. Electronics bump up against home appliances, watch and jewelry cases are located amid apparel racks, treadmills and other exercise equipment are sold in close proximity to snowblowers.
I asked one employee how the store was doing. The reply was, “Ahhh, OK,” and then he tried to get me to sign up for a credit card and Sears coupons.
Why not? A little cross-selling never hurts.
Like some other, older commercial strips in the Chicago area, Six Corners is a mix of emerging and declining commercial enterprises. If it were an old house, Six Corners would be marketed as a fixer-upper with “good bones.”
In addition to Sears, Six Corners boasts a Marshalls, Jewel-Osco, Famous Footwear, Culver’s, Binny’s Beverage Depot and a smattering of midsize industrial businesses, bars and a small theater. For lovers of make-believe, there’s also Fantasy Costumes, the self-proclaimed largest costume store in the city.
At the same time, the district is coping with a rash of vacant storefronts along North Milwaukee Avenue.
Next steps for the beleaguered and neglected Portage Theater, long a hub for neighborhood entertainment, are being worked out as new owners take charge.
Meanwhile, a plan to build new shops on a large vacant parcel across the street from Sears has stalled.
Arena is working with the developer to come up with a plan that would encompass residential, perhaps senior citizen housing, and some ground-level retail. The project’s height, density and parking are among the issues that need to be hammered out.
When I asked the alderman what impact a Sears closing would have on Six Corners, he conceded it would be a bummer but could also open the way to different expansion opportunities. “I respect the store, the brand and its physical presence,” Arena said. “But you don’t put all your confidence in one basket from an economic development perspective.”
The best-case scenario, he said, would be to keep the department store building intact and redevelop the parking lot and nearby buildings.
Again, let’s remember that Sears says its not planning to close the store.
But someone needs to be the skunk at this garden party, so let it be me.
While the Six Corners Sears is hanging tough, its parent company is in deep trouble.
Even if its latest quest for refinancing is successful, sales are slowing. Cost-cutting and store closings are not going to stop. Sears hasn’t posted a profit since 2011.
Just last week, Sears Holdings announced it was shutting 100 Sears and Kmart stores. That’s on top of 63 outlets already closing after the holidays.
Without a complete turnaround, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that Sears will eventually pull the plug on its Six Corners site.
So brace yourself, Portage Park.
These days, when it comes to Sears, anything can happen.