Sears files for bankruptcy, but can the company still survive?

Sears Holdings, which owns Sears and Kmart, has filed for bankruptcy.
Is this signaling an end of an era? Copyright Sears
Copyright Sears
By Lindsay Lowe with TODAY Lifestyle
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A new round of Sears store closings is on the horizon.


It's the end of an era for one of America's most iconic department stores.

Sears Holdings, the corporation that owns Sears and Kmart, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Monday. The announcement comes amid declining sales and massive debt held by the company, which has been struggling to compete with online retailers like Amazon.

The company's earnings have been plummeting for a while; total revenue was$16.7 billion last year, down from $50.7 billion in 2007.

Sears and Kmart stores aren't disappearing completely, but 142 unprofitable stores will be closing by the end of this year, with liquidation sales beginning "shortly" at these locations, according to a company release.

That's in addition to the 46 stores that were already scheduled for closure by November.

In the meantime, many Sears and Kmart stores, as well as "online and mobile platforms, are open and continue to offer a full range of products and services to members and customers," the company said.

Loyalty programs, including the Shop Your Way membership program, as well as the Sears and private label credit card rewards programs, will also continue as usual.

TODAY Style reached out to Sears, and a spokesperson declined to comment beyond providing a link to a website about the company's restructuring.

This Sears store in Chicago closed last year.
This Sears store in Chicago closed last year. Getty Images

Sears was once a giant in the retail landscape. The company was born in the 1880s as the R.W. Sears Watch Company, a mail order catalogue that sold watches and other jewelry. By the early 20th century, the mail order catalog expanded to offer everything from clothing, bicycles and sporting goods, to automobiles and even entire houses.

The Sears & Roebuck catalogue offered everything from clothing, bicycles and sporting goods, to automobiles and even entire houses..
The Sears & Roebuck catalogue offered everything from clothing, bicycles and sporting goods, to automobiles and even entire houses..The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Shoppers could find almost anything they dreamed of in the Sears catalogue and, in that sense, Sears was the Amazon of its day, says Doug Stephens, a retail expert and founder of the retail consultancy, Retail Prophet.

"It could ... be argued that Sears created the template for today's e-commerce environment with its catalogue business, bringing their offering to remote communities and markets across the United States," Stephens told TODAY Style in an email.

The latest fashions appeared in the Sears & Roebuck catalogue.
The latest fashions appeared in the Sears & Roebuck catalogue.The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Stephens himself still remembers the excitement of flipping through the Sears' Christmas catalogue as a child.

"Sears was a mainstay in my home. My parents bought almost everything there," he said. "From our lawnmower to our sofa and the portraits hanging on the wall ... My parents trusted Sears. To them it represented quality and peace of mind, given that Sears would allow returns with no questions asked."

But with the rise of online shopping, the catalogue model that had once been so innovative became outdated, and Sears struggled to remain relevant. The company invested too heavily in its physical stores and didn't focus enough on digital strategy, Stephens argues.

Inside a typical Kmart store
Inside a typical Kmart storeSears

Also, he says the company struggled to attract younger consumers.

"Sears missed an important demographic shift to younger, more urban and connected shoppers," he told TODAY. "They chose instead to remain focused on the GI and baby boomer generations. When you add it all up, it was a fatal set of decisions."

What's more, Stephens says the very concept of the department store is outdated in the digital age. He argues thatbig box stores have to start offering experiences, not just products, to draw people in. Yesterday's "department stores" should become community hubs where people can "meet, eat, shop, play and be entertained," he said.

Many Sears and Kmart stores will remain open for business throughout the holiday season, and Sears Holdings says it plans to emerge from this bankruptcy filing as a strong, profitable company, centered around a smaller number of locations.


But Stephens, at least, takes a bleaker view. He believes Sears will not be able to survive in the long run, and he even predicts that a year from now, Sears will be "a distant memory."

"Unfortunately, years of neglect have rendered Sears irrelevant, regardless of their number of stores," he said. "Sears is already dead. They just don't want to admit it."

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