Carson’s to close after parent company fails to find buyer
Carson’s will shut down its department stores by late summer after more than 160 years in operation.
After parent company Bon-Ton Stores failed to find a bidder willing to keep the business going, a bankruptcy judge on Wednesday approved the sale of the company’s assets, including Carson’s and other retail chains, to a joint venture of two liquidation firms and a group of company bondholders.
The flagship of Carson Pirie Scott was once among a full lineup of showy department stores — including Marshall Field’s, Sears, Montgomery Ward, Henry C. Lytton & Co. and Wieboldt Stores — that called Chicago’s State Street home. None of those names can be found there today.
The changes on State Street mirror changes in the broader retail industry, as many shoppers have traded department stores for specialty chains, discounters and, more recently, online merchants. And it’s not just State Street — department stores that once drew shoppers to suburban malls are pulling back there, too, creating large vacancies that are a challenge for weaker malls to fill.
Carson’s will close 22 Chicago-area stores in addition to four that were already slated for closure. The chain’s demise leaves struggling Sears as the last man standing among Illinois’ once-mighty department stores.
Liquidation sales could begin as early as Thursday and must be completed by Aug. 31, court documents show. The retailer employed nearly 23,000 people nationwide as of Feb. 2.
There were no signs of imminent going-out-of-business sales Wednesday afternoon at the Carson’s at Harlem Irving Plaza in suburban Norridge. Customers said they were devastated to hear about the chain’s plans to close and didn’t know where they would shop as a replacement for their beloved Carson’s, even as they toted bags from nearby Kohl’s and Target.
“I do Christmas shopping here; I buy my perfumes here, for my daughters. I don’t know where you go. I know everybody goes online, but it’s not the same,” said Joanne Koletsos, of Rosemont. “You just enjoy coming here with the change of seasons.”
Leonardo Martinelli, of Chicago, who was shopping with his wife, Maria, and son John, said they remained loyal shoppers with a branded store credit card, even though they felt the quality of the clothing and some other items had gone down in recent years.
Looking back at the Carson Pirie Scott & Co. store in Chicago’s Loop over the decades.
While Bon-Ton is headquartered in York, Pa., and Milwaukee, its Carson’s and Bergner’s chains began in Illinois, where they maintain a sizable presence. Of Bon-Ton’s more than 200 stores, nearly 40 are in Illinois. Those stores cover nearly 4.3 million square feet of retail space. The company also has a distribution center in Rockford and a furniture warehouse in Naperville, according to court documents.
Carson’s got its start in Amboy, Ill., in 1854 before moving its headquarters to Chicago, where it took the name Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. in 1890. It opened its Louis Sullivan-designed flagship on State Street in 1904 and remained in operation there for more than a century. Target took over a portion of that space after Carson’s closed in 2007.
After a series of ownership changes, Carson’s became part of Bon-Ton, then the country’s fifth-largest department store chain, in 2006. It was a year after Federated Department Stores acquired Marshall Field’s, folding the longtime Chicago brand into its Macy’s chain. Bon-Ton, however, kept the Carson’s name on stores and earlier this year even floated the idea of extending the brand to more of its stores.
Carson’s and Bon-Ton are the latest casualties in a sector that lost shoppers to discount and specialty retailers, and then online stores — particularly at chains that relied on discounts to drive sales rather than unique merchandise or customer service, said Bob Phibbs, CEO of consulting firm the Retail Doctor.
“Department stores used to bring a branded experience,” he said. “Now, the experience is all the same.”
Carson’s liquidation comes after Toys R Us last month began going-out-of-business sales at 735 U.S. stores, including 31 in Illinois.
Retailers have announced store closures totaling 32 million square feet this year, on top of 100 million square feet last year, according to the CoStar Group.
Many of the stores slated for closure aren’t located in top-performing shopping centers that have been trying to reinvent themselves by bringing in movie theaters, gyms, food halls and trendier retailers, Phibbs said.
“I haven’t heard of any mall developer coming up with a recipe for success in those (weaker) malls or in rural areas that were already decimated when Walmart took out the downtown in the ’80s,” he said. “They’re huge stores. Even carving them up, it’s just not easy.”
Benazir Abidi, of Chicago, another shopper at the Harlem Irving Plaza Carson’s on Wednesday, said the store was the “soul” of the mall.
“My husband works at Macy’s even though I love Carson’s more,” she said. “And the day I heard (of store closings), that was the saddest day. It’s unbelievable.”