St. John’s Professor Weighs in on Sears Closing, Future of Department Stores and Malls
ST. CLOUD - Sears announced Monday that they are going to close their store in the Crossroads Center in St. Cloud. Big news for the community, but not necessarily surprising.
Louis Johnston is an economics professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University. He says Sears has been on a long slide to going out of business, a company that used to be a giant of the retail industry.
Sears was the Amazon of its time, they used to be the retail behemoth in the United States. If you wanted anything from shoes and clothes, to a kit to build a house, you could write to Sears headquarters in Chicago and either get it by mail order, or - starting in the 1920s - they started opening stores.
Johnston says Sears just didn't adapt to the changing retail landscape over the years, starting in the 1980s and 1990s when they didn't respond to the growth of Target and Walmart.
Many years ago Sears was considered a leading innovator in the retail world. Johnston says Sears missed the mark years ago when they chose to focus on their brick and mortar stores, instead of their mail order department.
Back 40 years ago Montgomery Ward, Sears and JCPenney all had catalog operations. There's really no reason why they couldn't have switched or evolved into an online company. But that's where Target and Walmart really changed the landscape. Sears and Penney's took their eye off the catalog ball.
Johnston says in order for other big department stores to stay alive, they'll need to reinvent themselves and focus on specific niches, much like a craft brewery, they are going to have to come-up with things like craft clothing or other items you can't find anywhere online.
When Sears closes its store in the Crossroads Center it is going to leave a big space of vacant real estate. Johnston says square footage of retail space in malls in the U.S. has been shrinking for about two decades now. He says malls have had to get creative.
For example, Southdale recently lost JCPenney as a tenant. They're going to take that whole space and turn it into a giant Lifetime Fitness.
Johnston's advice to the owners of the mall is to not rush to fill the Sears space.
For years the St. Cloud/Waite Park area has been a regional shopping destination for many people living in northern and western Minnesota. Johnston says local leaders will need to rethink what it is about our area that will attract visitors.
Are we thinking of our region as a general destination where people could come to get goods and services that they can't get online, especially services like restaurants, haircuts, clothes altering, etc.
Johnston says Sears closing could be thought of as an opportunity if the owners of Crossroads Center and local leaders work together to find a creative way to fill the vacant space.