For Sears Workers, a Chaotic, Heartbreaking Last Christmas – The Wall Street Journal

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For Sears Workers, a Chaotic, Heartbreaking Last Christmas – The Wall Street Journal

NEWINGTON, N.H.—Robert Donofrio has spent five holiday seasons tending to customers at a Sears store in this city an hour north of Boston. Nothing compares to the dystopian scenes the 68-year-old is witnessing this year from behind a glass jewelry case during the store’s final days.

Neon-yellow posters declare: “Everything must go!” Lines stretch so long that staffers have put up a hand-drawn sign to corral customers for checkout. On a recent Sunday, one shopper walked out with an undressed mannequin priced at $75.

“It’s a horror show,” said Mr. Donofrio, a former Boston paramedic. “People are screaming and shouting and pushing each other. It’s like Black Friday at

Walmart

every day.”

This is the last Christmas at Sears for thousands of workers across the country after

Sears Holdings
Corp.


SHLDQ -2.78%

filed for bankruptcy protection in October and announced plans to close roughly 200 Sears and Kmart stores. The fate of the company is still playing out in bankruptcy court, with hedge-fund billionaire and Sears Chairman Edward Lampertasking a judge to save some stores and other creditors pushing to liquidate the entire chain.

For employees whose locations are closing, this is a holiday season tinged with nostalgia, sadness, bitterness, uncertainty and, perhaps most of all, stress. The promise of deep discounts has drawn customers back to Sears, making the day-to-day job more difficult, said a dozen employees interviewed by The Wall Street Journal this month.

A checkout counter at a Sears store slated to close in Garden City, N.Y., on a Saturday afternoon in December. The promise of deep discounts has drawn customers back to stores.

A checkout counter at a Sears store slated to close in Garden City, N.Y., on a Saturday afternoon in December. The promise of deep discounts has drawn customers back to stores.


Photo:

Chip Cutter/The Wall Street Journal

Shoppers, meanwhile, want to reminisce. They tell workers about the first tool set they bought at Sears and recall childhoods spent circling items in the company’s Christmas catalog. They remember Sears as the mighty company that once built homes by shipping materials by rail.

While she shopped for discounted Christmas village items, Marcia Michaud of Berwick, Maine, started talking with a stranger about the store’s demise. “It’s such a shame,” she said.

The Wall Street Journal visited six closing Sears stores across four states over the past couple of weeks. As workers reflected on their tenures, some were sentimental, and others fed up, sick of reliving memories. One worker in Natick, Mass., likened the multiweek going-out-of-business sale to attending a funeral daily. In Waterford, Conn, Ahyvon Evans, who has worked at the store for three months, said many customers ask how much longer the store will remain open, and how she will fare once it does shut its doors.

Adding to the uncertainty: Many employees said they don’t know when their stores will close and they will be out of a job. Mr. Donofrio said he initially believed his store would shut its doors at the end of January, a date that later shifted to Jan. 16, Jan. 13, and now Jan. 6.

“Protecting the interests of Sears’ associates and all stakeholders has and will continue to be a priority for the management, board and restructuring committee of Sears,” a Sears representative said.

While the closing stores remain open, they are busy. At a multilevel Sears in Garden City, N.Y., a checkout line snaked halfway across one floor. A nearby row of lighted, artificial Christmas trees stood for sale, marked down 50%. In the basement appliances section, salesman Ricardo F. Pierre, who has worked at the store for 20 years, rarely stopped moving. He opened stainless-steel refrigerator doors, pointing out features to customers and walking them through warranty options. Fluent in four languages, he answered questions from customers in English and Spanish. Those who preferred an answer in French or Creole could have gotten it, too.

Ricardo F. Pierre has worked at Sears in Garden City, N.Y., for 20 years. ‘Sears taught me how to sell, how to become what I am today,’ he says.

Ricardo F. Pierre has worked at Sears in Garden City, N.Y., for 20 years. ‘Sears taught me how to sell, how to become what I am today,’ he says.


Photo:

Chip Cutter/The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Pierre, a 50-year-old native of Haiti, said he was “heartbroken” over the closing of the store, a place where he learned to sell mattresses, vacuums, lawn mowers, sporting goods and appliance warranties over his two-decade career. “Sears taught me how to sell, how to become what I am today,” he said.

Mr. Pierre typically works 35 to 40 hours a week at Sears, and maintains another part-time job driving the elderly. The store closing didn’t surprise him; traffic had been down for years. But he doesn’t know what he will do next. He is considering applying at another retailer, such as Lowe’s Cos. or

Best Buy
Inc.,

but might take some time off first.

“This is a second home to me,” he said. “I feel this is the greatest business we have in America. It should not be going down.”

Stores have been shrinking for years. In New Hampshire, Mr. Donofrio estimated his location employed dozens of staffers five years ago; today, that number is closer to between 10 and 15 employees, he said. With sales commissions, staffers at his store could earn $80,000 a year selling mattresses and appliances. But when traffic fell, so did their compensation, he added.

Management changes also stung. Sears replaced its traditional employee-discount program with a points-based system tied to its loyalty program in 2017, a move Mr. Donofrio likened to the company suggesting to employees: “We’re going to turn you upside down and shake the change out of your pocket.”

Dozens of current and former Sears and Kmart workers wrote a letter to Sears’s chairman last month, urging him and other Sears creditors to save as many jobs as possible and pay severance. The approach followed that of laid-off Toys “R” Us Inc. workers, who persuaded former owners to establish a $20 million hardship fund. This month as much as $25.3 million in bonuses were approved for top Sears executives and senior employees.

“The word to describe how workers feel about the bonus plan is ’outrage,’ ” said Lily Wang, a deputy director for Organization United for Respect’s Rise Up Retail campaign, which advocates for retail workers. “People are shocked and angry.”

Plenty of employees are still searching for what comes after Sears. In Nanuet, N.Y., breakroom conversations between workers frequently now center on the question: “What are you doing next?” as people say their goodbyes, one worker said.

From New Hampshire to Ann Arbor, Mich., many workers have fielded business cards and job leads from shoppers and area businesses, including a local restaurant, dialysis clinic and manufacturer.

A Sears store at the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, Conn. On a recent Saturday night, a line to check out stretched near the door.

A Sears store at the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, Conn. On a recent Saturday night, a line to check out stretched near the door.


Photo:

Chip Cutter/The Wall Street Journal

Some say they hope to take it easy after a frenetic period in stores. Janet Pyre has spent three years at the Natick, Mass., location, where her husband also works. As shoppers crowded around her jewelry counter last weekend, she said: “I’m going to take a rest.”

Those tasked with liquidating Sears stores say they won’t have to go far for their next assignment, either. Steps from the Nanuet Sears, a

Macy’s
Inc.

store is closing next year.

Write to Chip Cutter at chip.cutter@wsj.com

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