Jack Knox: Sears shuts doors for last time in capital region

Jack Knox mugshot genericJust a handful of customers were waiting when the doors slid open for Sears’ last day as a Hillside mall retailer Monday.

Not like Oct. 19, when a couple of hundred people poured in as the close-out sale began.

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There wasn’t much merchandise left to buy by Monday. The bones had been picked clean over the past couple of months.

Inside the entrance, a thin row of clothing racks fenced off the barren expanse of the sales floor; it looked like the fringe of trees bordering a clearcut. Winter hats trimmed with fake fur were going for $5 on one table. Belts, hoses and air filters specific to a variety of home appliances were laid out on another.

Some of the goods — snowblower covers, snowball-launching toys — seemed more appropriate to Victoriaville than Victoria, which is probably why they hadn’t been snapped up yet. Still, it was expected that every piece of merchandise would be gone by the end of the day, Sears’ last as a retailer in the capital. Ditto for the Sears in Nanaimo.

The Hillside store will be open to those looking for fixtures — shelves, glass display cases and so on — for another 10 days or so, but after that, the Sears Canada name will be nothing but a memory.

Peter Lunt found the scene hard to reconcile. Others might have shown up looking for a bargain (under a sign reading “Please help yourself to a piece of Sears history,” a serious-looking man was stuffing scores of hangers into a big plastic bag) but Lunt was searching for something else. He spent from 1957 to 1972 as a manager with the chain, with much of that time devoted to opening Simpsons-Sears stores, as they were then known, so watching the Hillside outlet close was like adding the other bookend.

Back in its glory days, the Sears empire was a seemingly permanent and ubiquitous presence both north and south of the border. “It’s beyond belief how big and powerful it was,” Lunt said. What happened to Sears Canada mirrored the Sears experience in the U.S., where specialized competitors began to help themselves to pieces of the pie, he said. Where the chain once dominated the “hard lines” — hardware, paint, furnaces, hot water tanks, roofing — it lost ground to the likes of Home Depot. Sleep Country took a big bite of the bedding business. And on and on. “Retailing has become more specialized,” Lunt said. “You can’t be all things to all people anymore.”

Plenty of reasons have been offered for the demise of Sears Canada, which filed for creditor protection in June. Low-cost competitors such as Walmart, said some. A hedge fund manager milking the corporate cow, said others. Some blamed online shopping — the height of irony, seeing as Sears’ legendary catalogue-based business was the Model A forerunner to Amazon’s Tesla.

That last notion, the idea that Sears should be taken as a canary in the coal mine by bricks-and-mortar businesses dealing with online competition, is discounted by David Ian Gray of DIG360 Consulting. “It didn’t help, but that’s not why Sears isn’t there,” he said Monday. He cited a revolving door of leadership, a failure to deal with the rise of those big box retailers, the lack of investment by the chain’s American owners and a panicked response to Target’s acquisition of Zellers leases in 2011 as being greater factors. It’s also worth noting that a DIG 360-Leger study of Canadians’ fashion-buying habits last year found that 65 per cent of Sears shoppers were over 45, “an age at which we know spending on fashion begins to significantly decline.”

Sears isn’t just another company. The 65-year-old chain resonates in Canadian pop culture, which is why its downfall was voted Canadian Press business story of 2017. Its customers (even former ones) felt a connection.

Maybe that’s why so many of the staff hung in to the end, even when a $260-million pension fund shortfall left many dangling. Just a handful of the Hillside store’s 110 employees pulled the plug early. (If the closing had a silver lining, it’s that it came with Greater Victoria experiencing Canada’s second-lowest unemployment rate, 3.4 per cent, which should make finding new jobs a bit easier.)

It’s not yet known what will happen to the space occupied by Sears, which was the Hillside Centre’s anchor tenant when the mall opened in 1969.

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