MERIDEN — Three weeks after they were told their store had been spared the ax, Sears employees were shocked to learn the Meriden location would close after the holidays.
Some Sears employee said they heard the news from television reports.
Sears Holdings Inc. announced last Thursday it was closing an additional 40 stores following a round of 142 store closures in October. The Meriden store and its automotive center were on Thursday’s list. A liquidation sale will run through the holidays.
Adding to the uncertainty locally is the merger between Westfield and Unibail-Rodamco which was completed in June. The name for the mall remains Westfield Meriden. The local management staff is still led by Pat Madden and Chris Powers, a spokesman said.
Unibail-Rodamco views the consolidation of department stores in its portfolio as a long-term opportunity to creatively transform retail space and in the process introduce new elements, energy, choice and convenience to its centers, according to company representatives.
The company has no immediate announcements to make regarding Sears in Meriden.
Employees were still reeling from the shock this week.
“I found out on TV on Saturday,” said one employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.
Because Sears owns its buildings, the site’s future is, for the most part, out of Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s hands unless it buys the real estate, experts said.
“It’s not like (Sears) can turn in the keys and leave,” said Craig Johnson, a consultant and founder with Customer Growth Partners. “There is very little (the mall owner) can do about it.”
“The question is how does that space get repurposed?” Johnson said. “The ideal option is to (find another tenant). You might want another department store.”
Boscov’s department store came to the Meriden mall’s rescue when JC Penney closed in 2014, and has since filled additional anchor space in the Milford Post mall, sold by Westfield last year.
Dublin-based fast fashion retailer Primark has filled some anchor space in other malls, but Meriden likely doesn’t have the foot traffic to support it, Johnson said.
“There are not a lot of hands going up,” he said of the options.
The store could be broken up in two, three or four smaller pieces, or Sears could lease the second floor to another retailer. It could also dump the soft lines on the top floor and concentrate on Craftsman and Kenmore lines on the first floor. The chain is also testing a rebrand of the Sears Auto Center to DieHard, Johnson said.
In the hierarchy of alternative uses, the next would be a big box grocery store. A grocery chain in Massachusetts is filling space left vacant by a JC Penney at other locations, so it could be another possibility, Johnson said.
Sears could also be converted to house a fast-casual restaurant and bar or an entertainment spot like Dave & Busters.
“It appeals to millennials,” Johnson said. “The idea is having a place with adult beverages and if people come early and shop, it helps everybody. If there is a lot of traffic, it may make some economic sense. There is a lot of retrofitting.”
Other options include a gym, an ambulatory health care center, a data center, or a call center. But attracting white collar companies to a mid-tier mall such as Meriden won’t be easy.
“Nothing is ideal,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be tough.”
There is also uncertainty with what the new owners might have planned for the mall.
Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield is a European commercial real estate company headquartered in Paris. After the merger, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield is the largest commercial real estate company in Europe and is a component of the Euro Stoxx 50 stock market index.
Its portfolio consists of retail property, office buildings and convention centers within Europe and North America, according to its website.
The Westfield portfolio includes the mall at Century City in Los Angeles, considered the marquee mall in the deal. It also included a number of strong malls in different areas. What the partnership is likely considering now is the direction it wants to go in Meriden, Johnson said.
“Do they want to spend investment money fixing up and making a solid mall better?” Johnson asked. “You figure they have to be going through that kind of calculus now.”
Meanwhile, shoppers were combing the aisles for bargains at Sears Monday. Corine Perkins of Meriden was shopping for shoes.
“I think it’s bad because my husband worked 20 years in the Waterbury store,” Perkins said. “I always got my shoes here.”