How bad is it for Sears, really?
Bad. From its glory days of more than 3,000 stores, it will have shrunk closer to 600 by the end of 2017. Sales at the Hoffman Estates–headquartered parent company, which also operates Kmart, were down nearly 20 percent in 2015, and some analysts think it will file for bankruptcy within two years. To stay afloat, Sears is unloading its hallmark brands: Craftsman is going to Stanley Black & Decker, and Kenmore has been on the block for a year. In February, Fortune magazine flagged a dire sign: The cost to insure Sears’s debt over the next five years is more than twice the value of the debt itself. Translation: Wall Street thinks Sears is more likely to go under than to pay back its loans.
Yikes. What went wrong, exactly?
It tried to remake and rebuild itself, unsuccessfully, several times (Exhibit A: its 2002 purchase of Lands’ End, which unraveled under Sears and was spun off in 2014). Hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert merged Sears and Kmart in 2005, eventually becoming CEO; under him, the company deployed precious cash to buy back stock to try to boost share prices. Meanwhile, it spent meagerly on its deteriorating stores and botched its transition to e-commerce with confusing, fragmented channels. Videos of Sears and Kmart stores empty or in disarray are now a YouTube genre.
So is Lampert to blame?
Not entirely. Retail is a tough business filled with recent bankruptcies (see: Sports Authority). But Lampert’s close-’em-down-and-sell-’em-off strategy—similar to the one he previously used to lift Kmart out of bankruptcy—has done little to stabilize Sears. It also opened the door to a shareholder lawsuit, filed in 2015, claiming that Lampert orchestrated the stripping away of Sears’s choicest assets, such as Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores, so they would go at cut-rate prices to a trust he controls. A $40 million settlement was reached in February.
How much would a Sears bankruptcy hurt the Chicago area?
Headquarters reportedly employs up to 4,850, not to mention that there are 14 Sears and seven Kmart stores left in northern Illinois. Even if Sears continued to operate in bankruptcy, those rolls would likely get slashed. Judging by the recent HQ hemorrhage—130 pink slips in February—the pain is real.