Target had long lines. Shoppers were shoulder-to-shoulder at Walmart. Long lines of vehicles snaked into Central Texas Marketplace late Thursday night and early Friday morning, as Black Friday once again proved irresistible.
But what about Richland Mall, the covered retail center at Waco Drive and State Highway 6, around since 1980 but immersed in transition? Sears, an anchor from the beginning, seemingly has more lives than a Craftsman socket wrench with a lifetime guarantee. For now, Waco’s Sears has dodged the ax the Illinois-based retailing giant continues to swing, slashing stores and jobs nationwide amid mounting debt and sluggish sales that forced it into bankruptcy last month.
“I grew up with Sears, Craftsman and Kenmore appliances,” said Jamey Davis, 50, a Waco native now living in Bay City and working in the petrochemical industry.
He visited in-laws Friday and took son Colby, 17, to Sears, where they lingered several minutes in the tool section.
“I was telling him that when I left in ’93, half the stores in Waco now were not here,” Davis said. “Central Texas Marketplace was not around. There was nothing on Franklin Avenue but used-car dealerships. Valley Mills Drive was where all the teenagers gathered on Friday and Saturday nights, me included.”
The change is amazing, and Sears’ demise is disappointing, Davis said. He said he doubts Richland Mall will boast a Sears store when Black Friday 2019 arrives.
“There are just too many options out there. Sears couldn’t keep up and lost its niche,” he said. “The fact you can buy Craftsman tools at Lowe’s and Black & Decker now owns the brand is testament to that fact.”
A banner in Waco’s Sears store proclaims the chain was established in 1893, 125 years ago.
Kelli Hollinger, director of the Center for Retailing Studies in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, said she believes Sears is beyond hope.
“Sears leadership has done everything it can to save a few locations, but it has seen decades of mismanagement, underinvestment in stores and undifferentiated product lines,” Hollinger said. “It’s sad. At one time Sears was the largest retailer in America, an icon of American families and American business. Its bankruptcy is the result of failure to innovate, very much so. There is an old joke that Sears management had an office on the 27th floor, but bad news didn’t travel past the 26th.”
This insularity and dependence on what worked last year “just doesn’t work in that consumer tastes have changed, and technology rapidly changes how we make purchases,” Hollinger said. “Sears is beyond any recognizable iconic form that families may have reminisced about at the Thanksgiving table.”
Waco Sears store manager Chris Frakes said he could not comment on its future. But crowds swamped the place on Black Friday, with demand high for apparel, tools and toys, Frakes said. Sears added a toy line this season in pursuit of shoppers who otherwise may have visited the now defunct Toys R Us.
Elsewhere in Richland Mall, JCPenney was buzzing late Friday afternoon, with sizable lines around checkout kiosks, the Sephora display and sections devoted to large and small appliances, apparel, jewelry and housewares.
A few years ago, JCPenney was facing challenges. Its stores and product lines had become stodgy, and sales floundered. It responded by tweaking store layout and rounding prices to simplify the shopping experience. It then enticed Sephora to become an in-store partner and added big-ticket items and toys to fill gaps left by struggling Sears and Toys R Us.
“We’re carrying more toys than ever. On top of that, we went after the baby business, stocking walkers, strollers and car seats,” store manager Steve Valdez said. “We got into toys last year, dabbled a little bit, but this year we’re offering a tremendous number. On Thursday, we offered 50 percent off on all toys, so we’re getting into competitive pricing against Target and Walmart.”
Liz Rodriguez, 22, from Laredo and visiting friends in Waco, smiled when asked what attracted her to JCPenney. “Specifically? Sephora,” she said, holding up a black sweater to admire. “But this looks super comfy.”
As for appliances, “we’re offering the top four major brands,” Samsung, Frigidaire, General Electric and LG Electronics, Valdez said.
Across town, Target also had the absence of Toys R Us on its mind.
“I just got a thousand cases of toys today, and we have five times as many people as usual assigned strictly to toys,” assistant manager Sharon Nelson said Wednesday, during preparations for sales Thursday and Friday. “We have toys scattered everywhere, looking for a place to put them. We do expect extra traffic due to Toys R Us closing.”
Dick’s Sporting Goods was celebrating its first Black Friday weekend in Richland Mall by offering 25 percent off on all merchandise. A team leader, speaking quickly between tasks late Friday afternoon, said sales of trampolines, bicycles and basketball goals had been brisk.
Valdez, at JCPenney, said he hopes Sears survives. But if it does fail, and its 150,000-square-foot home becomes vacant, he has a wish list.
“I would like to see a more interactive mall, virtual reality type attractions like those at the Killeen mall,” he said. “Anything that would drive more traffic to the mall, especially with Central Texas Marketplace doing so well.”
Hollinger, at Texas A&M, said malls must evolve to meet consumer demand and tastes. She said shopping has become an experience, and success belongs to innovative properties that offer the most attractive mix of dining, entertainment, unique products and amenities. Amenities might include living and office space, with the ultimate goal being fun, even whimsical.
Amazon and online shopping have their place, but there will always be demand for brick-and-mortar space, even among digital-first companies, Hollinger said. A sizable percentage of shoppers “still want to be able to touch and feel the product, no matter how sophisticated their shopping app,” she said. “They want to try on those glasses or that bra, if for nothing else to develop brand trust. I see the battle of titans in retail becoming even more fierce. For the consumer, it’s a great time, a time of better service, greater differentiated products and unique shopping experiences.”