By now, you’ve perhaps heard of the hopefully happy news in the world of retail shopping: Sears is going to stick around a little longer. A couple of weeks or so ago, a U.S. bankruptcy judge allowed a plan by the chairman and biggest shareholder of Sears’ and Kmart’s parent company to stay in business, beating back challenges by creditors of the company who wanted a liquidation.
So, the judge’s approval means that Sears’ 425 stores will stay open, and its 45,000 employees will remain on the job. While that’s good news, naturally, it’s not all sunshine and lollypops at the moment: Sears Holdings has been under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since October, and since that time has closed several of its stores, including its location at West Towne Mall, just down the road from where I live. And it still has to find a way to attract those who left it behind for the likes of Walmart, Target, and Amazon.
Of course, Sears isn’t the only “brick & mortar” department store retailer with difficulties:
- Last year, the Bon-Ton stores, including Boston Store here in Southern Wisconsin, closed up shop, although they have resurrected online thanks to some venture capital firm you’ve never heard of.
- Toys R Us also shuttered its stores last year, all because its own venture capitalist owners and creditors wanted to make a quick buck, toy-desiring kids of the world be dammed.
- Same deal with Payless ShoeSource, who filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and, as I just learned this morning, will do so again, this time around resulting in the closure of all of its U.S. stores. (Side note: Payless is where I bought my very first pair of high heels.)
- The kids’ outfitter Gymboree is also closing up shop after filing its own second bankruptcy. (Another side note: Just as Sears had a presence at West Towne Mall, Gymboree, Payless, and Boston Store did as well. Perhaps it was the same deal at the mall near you.)
- Big Lots, which I admit I never ventured into, closed its only Madison store earlier this year, 6 years after it opened. (Yet another side note: The shopping plaza Big Lots was located in is slated to get a big, and needed, visual upgrade.)
- Even the smaller shops that aren’t part of big multi-state chains feel the sting. Here in Madison, the owner of Knitting Tree, a shop that offered yarns and craft materials, announced plans to close up shop and head into semi-retirement after a nice, long run. The owner of Playthings, which offered “a wide variety of unique and quality toys” from its one location (Hilldale in Madison), also announced plans to close her store and retire.
- Even changes in closure plans seem to be couched with a “still, however…” tone: The Learning Shop, which is headquartered in Appleton and has locations throughout Wisconsin, announced plans to close its Madison location, only to reverse course this week and see how community support will be over the next couple of months.
While it’s all too easy to blame online retailing for these stores needing to close or shake things up, there are lots of other reasons why they feel they are “just surviving” and playing catch-up: Yes, the convenience of online shopping is still a reason. But there’s also the above referenced demands of these businesses’ owners, many of whom are impatient and want to see an immediate return on their investment (they’re only in it for the money). And there’s the nimbleness of the larger, more successful retailers who can use their buying power, and dictate their own terms, to capitalize on that next big style or in-demand product at a low cost. And if they’re successful at one thing, they’ll be able to expand their sights and offer items usually found at other stores closing up shop have been known for… like, say, the children’s cloting of Gymboree, the shoes of Payless, and the toys of Playthings or Learning Shop. (Well, okay, maybe not quite the toys of Playthings or Learning Shop; their offerings have been more high-quality and educational.)
Yes, all these changes in tastes and business strategies have led to what’s been called the “retail apocalypse,” in which retailers seem to close left and right, be they the small shop or the big chain. It’s seemingly led to two types of retail businesses left standing: The big stores with global dominance (e.g. Walmart, Target, H&M) and the smaller mom-and-pop businesses that are normally local in focus and and zig where the big boys zag.
What’s left between the big retailers and smaller shops are the businesses in the middle, who can’t quite offer the service of the latter and are getting swamped by the former. And with that I bring to your attention another struggling chain:
The store you see pictured from just a few years ago is the west side Madison location of Shopko. Yes, it’s a multi-state chain of department stores. And, yes, it offers the same stuff you’d find at a Walmart or Target (clothing, bedding, electronics, and your usual everyday needs).
But the name “Shopko” (or “ShopKo” to those like me who remember that the “K” was once capitalized) is very recognizable to both small-town and big-city Wisconsin. Founded in the early 1960s, Shopko started out with one store located at Military Avenue on Green Bay’s west side. (Yet another side note: That original location was a literal stone’s throw from the apartment I had lived in before moving to Madison.) The ad slogan Shopko used in the 1970s and 1980s (and inspiration for this post’s title), as well as the spokesperson in the ads that ended with that slogan, were as symbiotic with the chain as, say, peanut butter with jelly: Sure, one would be fine without the other, but together they were immediately memorable to generations of shoppers.
Over the years, Shopko would grow and grow: It would expand to Michigan in the late 1960s. It would be sold to the Minneapolis-based SuperValu grocers in 1971. It would expand to other locales, including here in Madison at the beginning of the 1980s. It would provide optical, pharmacy, and photo development services in addition to “the stuff that counts” (its current ad slogan). It would become a publicly traded company in 1991. It would purchase a smaller, more rural retailer, Pamida, in the late 1990s, with Pamida eventually rebranding as Shopko Hometown in the early 2010s. It would greatly expand to several other states over the years, ranging from Ohio to Texas to the Pacific Northwest, and from modest urban areas to the small towns Walmart probably never knew existed.
And in 2005, Shopko stopped being a company publicly traded on the stock exchanges and was acquired by an investment firm who specializes in leveraged buyouts and debt-ridden businesses. That’s not to say that that purchase of Shopko was the only reason the chain would see subsequent struggles. For sure, Shopko would be aggressive in its small-town expansion this past decade, just to name one favorable trait for the company. But it is indeed the victim of the Targets and Walmarts, businesses whose nimbleness and worldwide reach are no match for a more regional chain such as Shopko. And those expansion attempts by Shopko this decade? Yeah, maybe they came at the wrong time, financially speaking, for the company.
So on January 16, Shopko, a chain that was once considered well-run and was able to cater to the wants and needs of the communities it served, succumbed to the inevitable citing excessive debt and “competitive pressures” in its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors. Shopko would also announce the closure of 105 stores throughout the chain, including stores on Madison’s east and west sides and that original location on Military Avenue in Green Bay.
But that store closure number would grow, however: On February 7, Shopko announced it would close 174 more stores throughout the chain. And not just those in the big towns, either: Towns as small as Shawano and Kiel in Wisconsin, Munising and Kalkaska in Michigan, and many other similar locales will see their Shopko or Shopko Hometown stores shuttered by spring… and need to encase that mummifying space in a body bag lest any other retailer take the chance to occupy it. When all is said and done, and if Shopko manages to emerge from bankruptcy (that’s a BIG “if” at the moment), it will only have open about one-third of the 363 stores it has in its portfolio. For a chain like Shopko, that’s a big drop.
Needless to say, Shopko’s bankruptcy is big news up in the Green Bay area, where the chain still has its headquarters and is a reminder that Green Bay can be more than just its football team. It’s naturally big news throughout Wisconsin, including here in the Madison area, where in addition to the east and west side locations, the Shopko in the suburb of Monona will also shutter. Factor in those closings with that of a North Madison location that closed several years ago, and it means that Shopko will no longer have any retail presence here in Dane County.
Admittedly, in recent years I hadn’t given shopping at Shopko much thought. Yeah, my mind was drawn to the brightness and bustle of Target, the stylishness of H&M and Forever 21, and even the cheapness of Walmart (though only in a pinch would I ever want to go to Walmart). But I did check out what was marked down at the west side Shopko last Sunday. The store was how it was the prior times I stopped by: Warm, soothing decor, stuff you needed or wanted to buy (with big markdowns, naturally)… and not a lot of shoppers from what I could tell. Yeah, I guess I wasn’t the only shopper that hasn’t given Shopko a second thought in the past few years.
To be fair, though, it was rather snowy that Sunday afternoon (Madison has had a rough February weather-wise). And it’s not as if that Shopko was completely empty. Indeed there was a decent amount of cars in the parking lot, though it wasn’t overflowing. And there there indeed more than a few shoppers on that Sunday midday; it’s just that some sections weren’t bustling with deal-seekers. But things were indeed somewhat busy, judging from the fact that the busiest part of the store was the checkout lanes. Oh, and I did indeed to some shopping: I did snap up some deodorant, Valentine’s Day cards for my nieces, and an awesome pair of burgundy-colored boots from the Payless Shoes section of the store (uh, uh, their bankruptcies are not related).
Yes, I will return to Shopko at least once or twice more before they close here in Madison. And to me, the specific reason wont matter: It could be to find an attractive outfit, a pair of male-mode shoes, another pair of awesome Size 11 boots… or to just take in the fact that a department store I relied on quite a bit when I lived in Green Bay so many years ago is now fighting for its life.
For those of you who’ve never heard of Shopko or never had one in your town, think a good few thoughts for the chain, for they weren’t as massive as Target but was there when you needed it. Think good thoughts, too, for the Shopko employees, not only here in Wisconsin but elsewhere, who will have to find new employment once their store closes.
And most especially, think good thoughts for the communities who, for at least a little while longer, can rely on Shopko for that necessary or long-desired purchase… as well as the small towns who soon won’t have a Shopko and will have to travel a little further to satisfy their shopping needs… like [*deep, sad sigh*] that Walmart a few towns over.