Sears Willowbrook fills out their space, and how did it end up a Hometown any way?

Howdy, folks, and welcome to Houston Historic Retail! Today we’re back at everyone’s least favorite stomping grounds… Zombie Sears! With the recent closure of failed Pasadena Hometown Sears Conversion still looming over its head, things look somewhat bleak for a company that continues to close stores only months after opening. Despite all the tears shed for other locations of a retailer, which probably could have survived had they not “merged” with Kmart back in 2005. Let’s take a look back at one of the last real good ideas from before the merger, the Sears Grand concept. While Sears had started declining in status in the 80s and 90s compared to other corporations, they were still a competitive department store. The Grand concept was something really incredible at the time, it took a Sears a merged it with a Supercenter-style store. Meaning that you had a Sears selection of products set up in a non-mall Wal-Mart-style store (A single exterior entrance/exit, front-end numbered checkouts, a standardized layout, and a selection of groceries, including some refrigerated and frozen foods). The stores were meant to compete with Wal-Mart, Target, or even Kmart. However, with the merger of Sears and Kmart taking place a year later, Sears’ grand-Grand plans were put on hold. A few planned stores were built in a few new spots, such as Austin. However, the concept would end up mostly as Sears Essentials which saw the Sears name slapped on Kmart with a new coat of paint and not much else. While Sears Grand really could have helped the department store pivot into something sustainable, the concept was highjacked and used in a way that cheapened it. The reason I bring the Grand concept up is not to pine for the loss of a store I never knew but rather because I feel the same thing is happening with these Hometown Stores.

Going back and reading some of the earliest news on the Kmart-Sears merger, it revolves around the transfer of Kmart locations for new Sears Grand stores. At the time, all parties involved seemed optimistic as Sears Grand being the future, but there’s an interesting caveat in the contract that Kmart was required to operate the stores until April or May of the following year. By that point, however, the merger would be complete, allowing the new company could move forward with the cheaper Essentials plans. In 2012, years after Sears or Kmart had seen any profitability, Sears Hold Corp. began the process to start spinning off assets in what really was the start of the “true end” for the company. The company would start to spin off valuable assets, with executives often taking stock in the newly independent company. Over a time frame of years, Sears would spin off its Outlet and Hometown operations, well know brands like Land’s End, Craftsmen, and Kenmore, and their holdings in other companies like Sears Canada. In the majority, the spin-offs would perform well, with the Outlet and Hometown division receiving praise due to its success. Analysts identified this portion of Sears as being the “key component” of their business and a strong performer. In fact, going all the way to the birth of the “Grand Concept.” Sears had banked on not just competing with Wal-Mart and Target but appliance sellers like Home Depot and Lowe’s. In 2019 Sears would reacquire their Hometown stores, passing the Outlet locations onto another company. Looking to try a rebuild a core piece of business while dismantling another. So I still have to answer the question, why did this former Mainline Sears end up and stay a Hometown? Well, just as the Sears Grand concept was abandoned for Sears Essentials, the Sears Mainline concept was abandoned for this cheaper option. I (and the employees I’ve spoken to) have little faith this location will stay in the mall forever as Sears looks to lease or sell the building. However, in the meantime, it is making money, and being partially leased makes it more attractive. This space was never meant to be a Hometown, it’s just convenient.

One comment

  1. It’s hard to say how well Sears Grand would have done if Lampert never got involved with Sears or if Lampert took investment in Sears seriously and continued the Sears Grand expansion. On the one hand, Sears realized perhaps earlier than their fellow mostly mall-based department stores that malls were kind of a dying concept and they developed a design to get out of malls. Something like Sears Grand would have allowed Sears to have a major presence in places such as Sugar Land, Cypress, Katy, Pearland, and so forth. Sears likely would have had a better shot if they had big stores in those areas.

    OTOH, it’s hard to say how well a mid-tier big box store would have done. Sears Grand stores kind of felt like a Wal-Mart, but surely their prices wouldn’t have been competitive with Wal-Mart…or Target even. Sears might have had to alter their Sears Grand concept to perhaps have more home improvement items and less of the departments that seemed quite un-Sears like. These alterations probably would have been pretty easy to do. This, combined with The Great Indoors, would have given Sears a great base of non-mall stores.

    Perhaps the biggest fumble Sears had was not growing the Sears Hardware concept. Even with the strength of Lowe’s and Home Depot, neighborhood hardware stores are still viable and Sears could have taken advantage of that market. Hardware is also a segment where online sales isn’t as dominant as it is in a lot of Sears’ other segments. Most of all, Sears Hardware stores had the tool and hardware items that people most associated with Sears along with appliances (Sears Hardware didn’t start selling appliances until later on, but that was a smart move putting appliances in those stores).

    In some ways, the modern Sears Hometown Stores are similar to Sears Hardware stores, but the Sears Hometown Stores are mostly appliance-focused. Their inventory of tools and everything else is pretty thin and I don’t see people making Sears Hometown a destination for anything except appliances maybe. Without departments that draw shoppers in more regularly, like Sears Hardware had, I don’t know if Sears Hometown can keep Sears on the minds of shoppers. That’s a tough task. With Craftsman no longer a Sears brand and Kenmore not really being a dominant appliance brand, Sears doesn’t have that brand loyalty going for them either. The stuff Sears Hometown sells is pretty much the same stuff that’s available elsewhere.

    Having said all of this, looking at the two North Houston Sears Hometown stores (the Sugar Land store is a bit of a mystery to me), the Humble store does have the look of a credible retail operation. The inventory is good and it at least fills the store space. The Willowbrook Mall location…well, at least the inventory is getting better. It’s getting better very slowly, but I suppose progress is progress. At least they got new signs and moved the new signs to a better location. I can’t say Sears Hometown isn’t trying with the Willowbrook location, but indeed that location could be temporary depending on if the building sells or not. Perhaps if sales are strong enough, Sears might consider opening a non-mall Sears Hometown location in the Willowbrook area if the building sells or they might demand that any buyers of the building make space for a Sears Hometown store with an affordable lease.