Sears' eight-decade history in Lexington ends

ctruman@herald-leader.comJuly 2, 2013 

Thirty years ago, the Sears store at Fayette Mall was riding high.

The store had just opened its on-site financial services arm — which included Allstate Insurance, a Coldwell Banker real estate office and the brokerage firm of Dean Witter Reynolds. It touted the slogan, "Buy your stocks where you buy your socks."

Times have changed.

On Monday, parent company Sears Holding Corp. announced that the Lexington store would close by the end of the year.

Fayette Mall's owner, Chattanooga-based CBL & Associates Properties, has bought the huge space and plans to redevelop it.

Lexington's Sears is not the only one closing. Stores in southern Illinois, the Toronto area and outside Nashville also are being shuttered, according to news reports.

When the Sears at Fayette Mall closes, it will mark a final local chapter for a retailer that has been a major player in Lexington since before 1934, when it moved to a new home across Main Street.

Lexington was one of the first national sites for Sears, which began as a catalog business in 1893 in Chicago and branched out to retail stores in 1925. Along with McAlpin's and Shillito's, it was one of the city's largest department stores.

During the 1960s, the store fought an extended legal and city government battle to move its big store to Harrodsburg Road, but it eventually settled on the Fayette Mall property. When the mall opened in 1971, Sears was one of its founding tenants.

In the 1980s, Sears was America's No. 1 retailer. Steve Allen, who managed the Sears store at Fayette Mall in those years, called his shoppers "essential Mr. and Mrs. America — a cross-section of customers." In 1983, Sears in Lexington, Frankfort and Louisville even offered home cleaning services.

That decade also was a time when F.W. Woolworth, Kmart and Montgomery Ward were major players in American retail. Woolworth's, which closed its Main Street store in 1990, went belly-up in 1997. Kmart struggled for years and is now owned by Sears Holdings; it went from having three stores in Lexington to just one, on Nicholasville Road. Ward's, which anchored Turfland Mall until it closed in early 2001, is now an online-only business.

By 1989, the Lexington Sears store was feeling competition from discounter Wal-Mart. On March 1, 1989, the store closed for a 42-hour face lift and price markdown.

In 1993, Fayette Mall opened a new wing south of Sears; to walk from one end of the mall to the other, customers had to go through Sears.

But Sears is not the powerhouse it once was, battered by online retailers and more aggressive discounters with brick-and-mortar stores. The generation that bought at Sears as a matter of course, looking forward to the release of its seasonal catalogs and its Christmas "Wish Book," is aging or has turned to other retailers.

In 2011, the Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based firm announced that it would close 120 Kmart and Sears full-line stores.

Last year, Sears, which has posted six straight years of declining sales at stores open at least a year, announced plans to try to return to profitability by cutting costs, reducing inventory, and selling and spinning off assets. It closed 62 stores in 2012.

In May, Sears, which operates about 800 stores nationwide, said it lost $279 million, or $2.63 per share, in the first quarter. That compared with a profit of $189 million, or $1.78 per share, a year earlier.

Lexington shopper Karen Gallup says Sears' merchandise is no longer appealing.

Except for appliances and tools, "they were way behind the times for years, especially with their clothing," Gallup said. "When you walk into Fayette Mall, you see a lot of crowd walking through there, but that's all they're doing: just cutting through."

Jackie Ammerman remembers the excitement of visiting the downtown store because "especially at Christmas, Santa was always at Sears. I have great memories of Sears then. It changed so much when it went to the mall."

"As a child, you were anxious especially for Sears' Christmas catalog," she said. "That thing was raggedy by the time Christmas got there."

Sears shuttered its catalog operations in 1993.

Matthew Hosley, a former Sears employee who started working there at age 16 and was eventually promoted to management, said the store was slow to adapt to competition, and its sales tactics and salaries caused poor morale among employees. Hosley now works for state government.

"I ... wish that the Lexington store could be salvaged with a different business model," Hosley wrote in an email. "But I suspect if the rest of the company is run like the store in Fayette Mall, it won't be long before we hear about the company going under altogether."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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