What's In Store

Sears will leave tough-to-fill gaps as it closes Charlotte-area stores amid bankruptcy

As part of its bankruptcy filing this week, longtime retailer Sears said it will close two Charlotte-area stores, and a total of six in North Carolina. The closures will leave large voids for landlords to fill.
As part of its bankruptcy filing this week, longtime retailer Sears said it will close two Charlotte-area stores, and a total of six in North Carolina. The closures will leave large voids for landlords to fill. AP

Sears closed its doors at Eastridge Mall in Gastonia right before the holidays in 2014 as part of a company-wide closure of over 100 under-performing stores at the time. Nearly four years later, the 92,000-square-foot, two-story space remains vacant.

Landlords nationwide will soon be faced with a similar challenge in other soon-to-be empty Sears spots after the struggling retailer said this week that as part of a bankruptcy filing, it will close 142 under-performing stores. Two of those stores are in the Charlotte area; six are in North Carolina.

Sears is closing its store at Carolina Place Mall in Pineville, as well as other stores in Goldsboro and Fayetteville, according to the retailer’s bankruptcy filing Monday.

In North Carolina, Kmart, which merged with Sears in 2005, is closing stores in Statesville, Raleigh and Asheville. It’ll also close a store in Rock Hill on Cherry Road, about 21 miles southeast of uptown Charlotte.

A representative for Sears and Carolina Place could not be reached for comment.

Cindee Joye, a spokeswoman for Eastridge Mall, said the property is in “the beginning talks with a tenant” to fill the empty Sears spot.

Finding a new tenant large enough to fill the space isn’t easy, though: The average Sears store is about 100,000 square feet, roughly two-and-a-half times the size of a typical Charlotte grocery store.

Sears, a former retail giant that started in the 1880s, has trailed behind other department stores over the years and has incurred significant losses. The department store chain has been closing hundreds of unprofitable stores over the years, including a Sears in Monroe in spring 2017. The chain had about 4,000 stores at its peak in 2012, but after its most recent round of closures will have a little more than 500, the AP reported Monday.

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Steven Cox, a marketing professor at Queens University of Charlotte, said that while Sears’ latest decision to close stores is unfortunate for communities and employees, it was inevitable given the fact that Sears has fallen behind its competitors in recent years in terms of innovation.

“If the generic department store does not reinvent itself, it’s gone,” Cox said.

Kohl’s, for instance, has fared better than some of its peers in terms of profitability in recent months thanks to more efficient store-stocking and innovation. Kohl’s began a partnership last year with Amazon to sell its smart home products and accept its returns in its stores. This month, the chain opened a store in the former Gander Mountain store that closed last year in Steele Creek.

Sears’ decision even could be considered a positive thing for mall owners looking to refresh their mall lineup, Cox added.

“You have to ask yourself: What is the purpose of an anchor store? To bring in foot traffic so other stores get to benefit from it. Sears wasn’t doing that anymore,” Cox said.

Other uses of vacant stores

Some malls have gotten creative with vacant department store space. Some have looked to fill the void with medical offices, for instance, Cox noted. A Wegmans grocery store opened a store this year in a former J.C. Penney space in Massachusetts. The owners of Eastridge have considered putting a hotel into the old Sears space, according to a May 2018 story in the Gaston Gazette.

“For malls that are struggling, they’re going to struggle. For ones that aren’t, they’re going to want a new store that’s going to draw people in,” Cox said.

Sears, once an icon in the American retail landscape, has a long history in the Charlotte region.

The department store chain opened its first Charlotte store uptown in 1929 in the spot that’s now home to the new 300 S. Tryon building, which includes La Belle Helene and the headquarters for Elior North America.

Sears was also one of the original anchor stores of SouthPark when the mall opened in 1970. Sears’ 187,000 square-foot store, one of the largest and “finest in the nation,” according to a 1970 ad in the Observer, included an auto and garden center, a toy section, a coffee house and pet shop, among other amenities.

Sears closed its SouthPark location in June 2003. The store was demolished several months later, and a newly constructed, 84,000-square-foot Dick’s Sporting Goods store opened in its place in 2004.