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Editorial: Iconic Sears to exit Lakeshore Mall, but a retail opportunity remains

Sears last month made official what had been anticipated as inevitable for some time – it will soon close the store that has long been an anchor at Lakeshore Mall in Gainesville.

Once the nation’s largest retailer and a corporate giant whose business tentacles stretched to include real estate, insurance, financial planning, internet platforms and a host of other endeavors in addition to its core retail foundation, the iconic institution has been closing stores at a relentless pace for the past two years. Wishful thinking hoped the Gainesville store would remain open, but common sense said otherwise. It is expected to close by March.

With the rapidly changing dynamics of American business, we have become accustomed to the loss of what were once major players in the country’s consumer economy. Dozens of names once thought to be inextricably interwoven into the tapestry of American business have disappeared from sight and faded from memory, some of them totally unknown to today’s young adults  – Woolworth, A&P, FAO Schwarz, TWA, General Foods, Howard Johnsons, Eastern to name a few.

But Sears is a whole different class of historical business legacy, and while it hasn’t yet gone, barring last ditch efforts to salvage some remnant of the existing company, it definitely seems to be going. It is sadly ironic that the company founded as a mail order business to allow customers to shop from home finds its demise at least partially the result of online competition based on the same concept.

Those of a certain age, especially those who lived away from the nation’s major cities, will never forget the excitement of having the annual Sears Christmas catalog arrive in the mail, with page after page of inventory not likely to be found on the shelves of any nearby store. The company discontinued catalog distribution in 1993.

Begun as a mail order watch company in 1886, Sears did not open its first retail store until 1925. By 1931 there were so many stores that in-store sales eclipsed mail orders. Sears quickly became the nation’s largest retailer, a title it held until the 1980s, when first Kmart and later Wal-Mart claimed the title.

Along the way, Sears had such diverse holdings as ownership of Encyclopedia Britannica and the Allstate Insurance Company, which Sears started in 1931. While there are still last-minute efforts to try to save some portion of the bankrupt company despite the closing of hundreds of stores, even if they are ultimately successful the new Sears will bear little resemblance to the business lion of old.

Locally, we can only wait and see what impact the loss of a long-time anchor has on the county’s only mall at a time when the concept of mall shopping is decreasing in popularity nationwide. One need look no farther than a few miles south to see Gwinnett Place Mall, once the much celebrated centerpiece of retail growth in Gwinnett County, now largely abandoned. It, too had a Sears close last year.

In an area generally thought to be underserved by retail options, Lakeshore Mall has been a mainstay for nearly 50 years despite multiple changes in ownership. A constant for 30 of those years has been Sears as an anchor store. It was originally connected to the enclosed mall, then separated from the rest of the shopping area in 2013 with the construction of Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Once the pinnacle of suburban retail shopping, the popularity of malls in general has declined in recent years, with many struggling to keep tenants and draw crowds, and others augmenting or replacing retail options with more dining, entertainment and “experiences.” Some have even had success housing classroom space for school systems in addition to retail space. Many, however, have fallen on hard times, replaced with different types of open and vibrant retail/restaurant/entertainment complexes targeted toward a different spending audience.

We would love to see the existing Sears space draw the interest of a new tenant that would breathe fresh life into Lakeshore Mall while bringing a substantial new retail player into the Gainesville market. While much of the world’s shopping is now done online, there is still huge consumer interest in smartly operated, price competitive brick-and-mortar businesses.

But deals such as the recruitment of a new mall tenant can take months and years to complete, and a big empty building is a poor enticement to bring shoppers to a retail center.

Lakeshore Mall adds much to the local business community, but like malls everywhere it needs an infusion of new ideas and fresh concepts to sustain long-term viability. With luck, the closing of Sears will provide an opportunity for just that.

Gainesville is ripe for new retail opportunities; hopefully we can replace an icon from the past with a great prospect for the future.

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