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Sears, an icon of U.S. retail, may shut its doors

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Latest MoneyWatch headlines 01:08

Sears (SHLD), an icon of American retail dating to the 19th century, is in danger of having to close its doors. The company said late Tuesday in a regulatory filing that there is “substantial doubt” it can remain in business.

Sears’ stock price, which hit an all-time low last month, tumbled more than 14 percent Wednesday to $7.80.  As a measure of how far the company has fallen, in 2007 its shares topped $190

Sears tried to soothe investors’ fears, saying in a post on its site that it remains focused on “executing our transformation plan” and that news reports miss the full disclosure that it’s highlighting actions to reduce risks.  It also said that the comments made in the filing were in line with “regulatory standards.”

Chairman and CEO Edward Lampert’s hedge fund has forwarded millions in funding to keep Sears afloat but with sales fading, it is burning through cash.

According to its most recent quarterly earnings, Sears lost more than $2 billion last year. Adjusted for one-time charges, its loss was $887 million. The company has lost more than $10 billion since 2011 and has total liabilities of more than $13 billion. It hasn’t turned a profit since 2011, according to Reuters.

Retail blues 01:10

Sears, which employs 140,000 people, has been selling assets like its Craftsman tool brand. But it said its pension agreements may prevent the spin-off of more businesses, potentially leading to a shortfall in funding.

Despite those risks, the company said it expects actions it took in 2016 and this year, including the $900 million sale of Craftsman to power tool maker Stanley Black & Decker in January, will boost its cash holdings and give it financial options. Sears said it expects “to generate additional liquidity through the monetization of our real estate and additional debt financing actions.”

Lampert, a hedge fund investor who merged Kmart, which he controlled, with Sears in 2005. But despite a series of strategic shifts, he has failed to revive the company’s faded brand. In December, Sears said it would close 42 Sears stores and 108 Kmart outlets in a move to cut costs. It now has less than 1,500 stores, down from roughy 3,500 in 2010. The chain has scaled back unprofitable product lines such as consumer electronics and the pharmacy business that operates in most of its Kmart stores.

Sears, like many department stores, has been thwarted by a new consumer that has ripped up the decades-old playbook that the industry has relied upon. A plethora of new online players have also revolutionized the market. Though Sear has upped its presence online, is is having a hard time disguising its age. Its stores are in need of a major refresh as rivals like Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT) invest heavily to revitalize stores. Sales at established Sears and Kmart locations dropped 10.3 percent in the final quarter of 2016.

Industry analysts have placed the staggering sums of money that Sears is losing beside the limited number of assets it has left to sell, and believe the storied retailer may have reached the point of no return.

“They’re past the tipping point,” said Perkins, who heads the research firm Retail Metrics LLC. “This is a symbolic acknowledgement of the end of Sears of what we know it to be.”

Sears, Roebuck & Co. was officially founded in 1893 by Richard Sears, a railway agent who started the business by selling lumber and coal on the side to local residents, and by Alvah Roebuck, who sold watches. By 1895, the company had launched its catalog, which would go on to become an emblem of America’s emerging middle class.

Retail store closings 02:05

“It’s a sad story. This is the place that created the first direct to consumer retail, the first modern department store. It stood like the Colossus over the American retail landscape,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consulting firm. “But it’s been underinvested and bled dry.”

At a largely empty Sears store in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the available parking far outstripped the number of cars in the lot, 85-year-old Jack Walsh and his 82-year-old wife, Mary Ann, said they have shopped at Sears their entire lives, buying items from curtains and window treatments to tires and tools.

“I bought my tools from Sears, and I’ve still got them,” Jack Walsh said.

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