I want to start this post by mentioning something that took place a year ago but did not get the chance to share until now. Despite the delay, it perfectly dovetails to the theme of this post — stores closing in malls.
One year ago this month, I marched as Allison at a pride parade for the first time. That very same day in another part of Madison, a clothing store was closing its doors. The store was Apricot Lane Boutique. Before you get to saying, “Yeah, so what? Another chain store that couldn’t cut it anymore,” well, I’ll get to that subject in a moment. But it doesn’t apply to Apricot Lane. Matter of fact, they’re still very much a going concern (check out their website for proof). Rather than a cookie-cutter type of concept, Apricot Lane is a franchised clothing store, not unsimilar to someone being their own boss by purchasing and opening their own fast food franchise. But unlike a McDonald’s franchise that offers the same Big Macs and Quarter Pounders as the other McDonald’s franchises, those who operate an Apricot Lane franchise pick out and put up for sale (with the guidance of Apricot Lane’s buyers and stylists in all likelihood) unique clothing and accessories that they think are not only on-trend but will attract shoppers in their own town.
That was the case with the mother/daughter owners of the Apricot Lane franchise at West Towne Mall. They had a presence at West Towne for about three years. They began selling their fashionable, uniquely Madison, and unique-to-Madison wares in one mall spot in 2014 before moving to another, somewhat more roomier space a year later. (Let’s just say a Cheesecake Factory takes up a lot of space in more ways than one.) They happily continued business until August of last year. I didn’t realize they had closed their franchise until a month later, when I was strolling through the West Towne concourse and came across this:
Admittedly, as I mentioned in that post, it had been a while since I had ventured to West Towne Mall, or at least the section of the mall where Apricot Lane was located. And I admit I didn’t get the chance to venture into that particular Apricot Lane very much, only just window shopping and browsing when I did.
And as I also noted above, it appeared that this Apricot Lane’s closure appeared to be abrupt, as the space still had racks of clothing inside. It appeared as if somebody was home, but as this goodbye note stated, the lights would no longer be on. I never found out the reason why this Apricot Lane franchise closed up; the local newspaper never had any story about it. But I can’t help but think of the quote from Marilyn Monroe the franchise owners left behind: “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” Here’s hoping their next step in life has indeed become something truly beautiful.
Change is inevitable at any shopping mall. Stores come and go, be it a clothing boutique such as Apricot Lane or, say, an educational toy store…
Or a gelato stand at the food court…
Or an Apple store or beauty shop or seasonal kiosk-based businesses. If they’re able to roll with the changes, a mall and its stores can readjust and hope for better things. Back in 2016, I mentioned plans by the Sears store at West Towne to downsize its space and wares, de-emphasizing the electronics and specialty items for its traditional fare of clothing and appliances as well as mattresses and lawn/garden items. In that 2016 post, I contemplated how “half of a Sears” had the potential to make that particular Sears location seem less like a mausoleum. Well, did it work?
Well, as you can see in the above photo from January, the Sears at West Towne did indeed downsize and remodel, and they had very high hopes going in (“Now Hiring!”). Walking through the store, however, it really did feel like a mausoleum, albeit a brightly lit one: Wide-open spaces, departments abutting against each other, not-very-lively music over the public address… and still not a lot of foot traffic, which is what no store or mall ever wants.
So, as of last April, the space Sears yielded to the developers now houses two new-to-Madison chain stores, a Dave & Busters restaurant and a Total Wine & More liquor store. (A national chain liquor store?! Really?!)
And as of last month, the Sears now looks like… well, this:
Yep, you do indeed “store closing” signs in the windows above that entrance. As you no doubt are aware of by now, Sears has been struggling quite a bit in recent years; last year and earlier this year, they announced the closing of several stores around the country, including the Sears near where I used to live in Green Bay (the very store where I bought my first pair of women’s leather pants). Even that wasn’t enough, and in June they decided to close a few more, including the Sears at West Towne that had just finished downsizing and remodeling not even six months earlier (it’s set to shutter for good in September). Oh, there will still be a Sears in Madison, clear on the other side of town (at East Towne Mall), but even that won’t put salve on the wound of Sears being just a store that’s out of sight and out of mind to many shoppers.
Yes, the woes of Sears has gotten a lot of media attention in recent years, both here in the U.S. and up in Canada, where a totally separate yet equally struggling entity with the Sears name closed its last store back in January after a chain-wide liquidation. The media attention is not surprising since Sears has always been a prestigious and internationally recognized name and, for better and worse, a bellwether in the retail industry ever since the days of the Sears catalog. But there’s another wound that West Towne, East Towne, and other shopping centers in Wisconsin and across the country are suffering right now:
While they may not have had the same name prestige of Sears or JC Penney, a few other stores you likely haven’t heard of let alone been to have also struggled: Bergner’s. Carson’s. Elder-Beerman. Herberger’s. And two names that have been pretty prominent here in Wisconsin, Boston Store and Younkers. All 6 of those regional department store chains were under the same corporate umbrella and honeycomb logo of Bon-Ton. In the past decade or so, Bon-Ton’s fortunes have not been pretty, and in February they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. No white knights came to Bon-Ton’s rescue. Matter of fact, the only successful bidders for the company’s assets at bankruptcy auction were two liquidators who changed the Chapter 11 to Chapter 7 — meaning the operations of Bon-Ton and its stores would eventually cease.
And so, since the last week of April, when the above photo at West Towne Mall was taken, Boston Store and the other department stores under the Bon-Ton umbrella have been in “going out of business” mode, complete with tons of those garish red and yellow and black signs signifying the markdowns, which started at 10%-30% back in the spring and gradually but noticeably increased to 70%-90% this week. Speaking of this week, come Wednesday the Boston Store locations here in Madison, at both East Towne and West Towne Malls, will shutter for good, as will in all likelihood the other Bon-Ton-owned stores elsewhere in Wisconsin and around the country.
If you’re wondering, yes, I have been to the Boston Store closing sale. They started off lively (well, lively for a store that’s going under) back in the spring, with nicely stocked racks and friendly clerks. Slowly but surely as the spring and summer went on, the empty racks and cleared counters began to outnumber the remaining inventory. I made one last look-see through the West Towne Boston Store on Monday evening, and nearly everything was cleared out: The juniors section was gone. The makeup and jewelry sections were long gone. The elegant dresses were gone as well, and what’s left of the women’s section was fading fast. What’s left of menswear had been moved (twice) to a small section that had only big-and-tall sizes. Area rugs still had more than a few items left. And in the surest aural sign that Boston Store was ready to go, the Muzak was silenced (indeed, it had been silenced earlier in the month).
And I know what you’re asking: “Gee, Allison, did you buy anything during Boston Store’s dying days?” Well, of course I did: I snapped up a few men’s slacks and dress shirts for Male Mode Me’s business attire. I also snapped up a couple of women’s skirts and casual shirts, as well as a couple of dresses, including a pretty elegant outfit I’m planning on wearing to the OutReach Awards Banquet in October (a classy night calls for classy clothing). Oh, and I also purchased some elegant Size 12 heels and a pair of come-hither leather boots that go all the way to the.. wait for it… knee. (They’re not thigh high, I’m afraid, but they’re pretty darn close.) Total savings? I didn’t keep track, but let’s just say that I spent a whole lot less than regular price. I mean, come one, it’s a going out of business sale.
But that’s not to be glib about Boston Store or any other store going under. The livelihood of those who worked there is about to be disrupted (which I can certainly empathize with). The businesses that employed them will readjust and reorganize, with some having to withstand the creditors and, worse, the venture capitalists and liquidators ready to pick them apart. Mall owners will also have to deal with more empty space. And all will have to adjust to the established reality of competing with online retailers.
And shoppers? You know, the kind of shoppers like me who still love to get their hands right away on the latest styles with the best deals? And the kind who always thought going to the mall was fun? Well, we feel bummed out a little bit, and we’ll start to recall the good ol’ days, when the malls were filled to the brim with shoppers and, more importantly, retailers. Heck, even getting a thrill from just window shopping, rack browsing, and people watching at the mall was enough for me. Now it’s all too common to walk or drive past empty lots marked “store space for lease,” if not just sitting empty entirely.
The only thing that’s constant is change, I know. And it’s not like these malls aren’t trying to attract new occupants, or even vice versa. But it’s sad to know that a trip to the mall is no longer the enjoyable adventure it used to be.
A closing note about West Towne Mall: With both Boston Store and Sears closing their West Towne locations, the mall will have just two anchor stores remaining — Dick’s Sporting Goods (which has the space Boston Store once occupied until the mid-2000s), and JCPenney. Yes, JCP has had their own struggles this decade. But, no, there’s been no indication that either of its two Madison locations are on the verge of shuttering. Well, the last time I checked anyway.