Do these names mean anything to you? Zayre. Miller Brothers. Loveman’s. Proffitt’s. Hill’s. G.C. Murphy’s. Gibson’s. Woolworth’s.
For those of us who have been around a few years, those names bring back fond memories of the department stores of our youth. Some were downtown, others were on busy thoroughfares, and the rest were in malls.
The names K-Mart, Sears, JC Penney, and Macy’s appear to be fading as well. Many of these stores have already closed several locations, and they’re never coming back. JC Penney announced last week that 154 of its stores are about to close. Also this year, Pier 1 has closed 450 stores, The Gap has closed 230, Macy’s announced it will soon shut down 150 stores, and Sears followed the next day, adding 50 more to the closing list. Adding insult to injury, Sears merged with Kmart a few years ago, which only seemed to weaken both retailers. Kmart is closing another 40 stores soon.
It’s not uncommon to see abandoned or half-empty malls where customers were once plentiful. Are these malls going the way of the dime store, the telegraph and the rotary phone?
Considering how quickly the Internet took over America, it’s a wonder we have as many “brick and mortar” stores as we do. The current fears of terrorism and gang violence are keeping many Americans out of public shopping areas. People who traditionally jammed the mall the day after Thanksgiving now begin their Christmas shopping online, whenever they wish.
Certainly, there are still plenty of folks who enjoy the sights and sounds of the mall. We love the Easter Bunny, a chance to put our screaming baby on Santa’s lap, and free samples at the Food Court. It’s a great place to walk, and as any bored husband will tell you, the people-watching isn’t that bad while waiting for the wife to finish shopping.
But Amazon and other online retailers are making a strong argument that malls are an endangered species. You want to buy something when you can’t sleep in the wee hours? You can do it in your pajamas with the click of a mouse. The stores don’t keep your size in stock? Those odd 34-31 pants are all over the web (I know this for a fact). What’s that? You don’t like to pay shipping charges? “Buy just one more item, and we’ll ship for free!” Everywhere you look, there’s an offer you can’t refuse. Plus, there are no traffic jams, no long lines, and every counter is open.
Try as we might, it’s hard to find that kind of selection and service at your nearest department store. During this pandemic, they’ve been forced to lay off workers. We want to do business with them, and we want them to succeed. But even in normal times, it seems like one counter is open, and the clothing shelves look like they’ve been hit by a dust storm.
Those of us who grew up in rural areas eagerly anticipated our occasional visits to a big department store like Zayre. The one nearest me (30 miles away) was in downtown Chattanooga. Zayre had everything, or so it seemed. One trip, and your Christmas shopping was done. Then one day, Zayre went away.
Many of us also looked forward to the Sears catalog, every season of the year. Now every website offers an unlimited selection, and Sears is just one of thousands of retailers desperately seeking our attention. Unlike online merchants, Sears is burdened with big buildings to heat and cool. Give them credit: Sears was founded in 1886, and any business that survives 134 years has my respect. But the company is well past its prime.
I’ve always been a proponent of shopping locally. Having grown up in a country store, I understand the need for hometown merchants who know your name, and can offer your personalized service. It’s good to see some small supermarkets, hardware stores and pharmacies thriving against big-volume competitors. But how long can they last? At what point does a fifth-generation family business owner throw in the towel, no longer able to compete with billionaires?
You may have noticed one name I haven’t mentioned in this conversation about retailers: Walmart. They provide a lot of jobs, a huge selection, and some genuine bargains, but at what cost? How many locally owned retailers have struggled, and then failed, to compete with Walmart? And what happens if Walmart is the last store standing? When competition is diminished, prices go up, and the quality of service goes down.
Times change, and we have to adjust. But I’ll bet I’m not the only one who gets a little misty-eyed when I see a store from my childhood close its doors for the last time.