We’re all aware of the abysmal condition of the national corporation Sears Holdings Company and its two flagship department stores, Sears and Kmart. I’ve covered both on my blog numerous times. For the last decade, the parent company, in a desperate attempt to induce profitability, has shed its lowest performing locations, one after another. But none are well-performing, and the cost-cutting measures remain apparent at the survivors: poor maintenance, sparse staffing, and, more recently, a conspicuous thinness of merchandise, indicating that even Sears’ and Kmart’s preferred vendors have lost confidence that the retailers would sell enough inventory to pay off its loans. Numerous clickbait websites have chronicled these empty shelves and yawning gaps between displays, which seems more than a bit petty and unabashedly cynical. Yet I’m guilty of the same sensationalism; glass houses can’t throw stones.
So perhaps I should assume a bit more triumphant of a posture in revealing a location that looked like this:
Yup, still a Sears. But no clothes on the floor, no ransacked displays, no mangled plastic containers. No monumental vacancies either. Everything neat and tidy. Of all the Sears I’ve visited these last few years (and I’ve been to my fair share), this is the best-looking one I’ve found. The most logical conclusion to draw is that it’s a particularly high-performing mall—in this era of mall mediocrity—and the management felt the pressure to keep this location at its A-game.
Obviously, for those who know my articles’ tendencies to defy expectations (almost predictably by now), this is hardly the case. One thing’s for sure: this Sears isn’t located in the Galleria. Here’s the mall from the outside:
The entire rest of the mall is dead. Nothing but the Sears. It’s the Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Virginia. Like so many before it, capital fled the mall in its final decade, leaving it a shell at a densely populated convergence of three highways, less than four miles from the historic city’s thriving Old Town. I’m not sure there’s much else to say about Landmark Mall other than it fell from a particularly high perch: as recently as 2009, it hosted luxury department store Lord and Taylor. The mall’s owner proposed redevelopment in 2013, suggesting that its decline had escalated considerably.
See the labelscar? Early this year, the Macy’s announced its departure, prompting the owner’s complete closure of the mall’s interior, followed immediately by a purchase of the 11.4 acres occupied by Macy’s.
And, just a few months later (the photos come from April), the mothballing of 75% of Landmark Mall’s interior is obvious. The old entrance to the mall from the fully operative Sears offers a few hints.
A huge partition blocks any further entrance beyond enough access to capture that quintessential mall centerpiece: the vaulted skylight.
But visitors still must contend with quite an eyesore to get to that lonely Sears. And why would it look so great? According to a recent featurette, the Sears is still “turning a profit”. While such a statement defies belief, the distribution of retail in the area actual hints that it may not be so far from the truth. The immediate surroundings may are not as affluent as the majority of Fairfax and Arlington counties, but it’s hardly impoverished; and the presence of numerous 10 and 15-story apartments endows the area with a density of income atypical for auto-oriented suburbia. Many of the apartments’ residents are immigrants of moderate income, and Sears still offers products at a suitable price point.
But, more importantly, it’s just about the only show in town. Among Virginia’s expansive and wealthy Washington DC suburbs, only two Sears locations remain. It’s not a coincidence that a chain retailer can nearly always improve same-store sales by trimming the fat. When it comes to dying retailers like Sears and Kmart, more often than not, their strongest branches are in otherwise economically lagging regions that haven’t attracted the interest of Walmart, Target, Big Lots, Kohl’s or other more successful competitors. My suspicion is that—if Sears Holdings Company still exists five years from now—its only surviving locations will fit the human geographic profile of the Landmark Mall, much the way other formerly resurgent chains wasted away to their final locations. And then these final survivors essentially start operating like mom-and-pops, rubbing their coins together to focus on the aesthetic details that the company neglected back when it was too big to fail.
Well, most details. Sears won’t be here at Landmark Mall much longer either. The Howard Hughes Company announced after buying the Macy’s site that it seeks to transform the entire mall into a mixed-use urban town center of the likes that are so popular (and increasingly ubiquitous) in metro Washington DC. Until then—and the actual plans are still unclear—Sears trots along, keeping its cute-as-a-button displays, along with unusual photographic ads like this one:
Why is the couple relaxing on a completely bare mattress? Who would do that? Well, judging from the sad state of the once-loved Craftsman section several yards from the bedding department, we can still rely on Sears to bungle at least a few features that used to be second-nature to the teetering Goliath.
This article originally appeared in the author’s personal blog, American Dirt. All photos taken by the author.