The signature Sears Town sign, at the Key West, Florida location, overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. … [+] Sears Town is the community’s first shopping center.
FLORIDA MEMORY SITE
Today was scheduled to be the last day of operation at the Sears in Key West, Florida. For 55 years, the retailer anchored a shopping center simply called “Sears Town.” But the Key West Sears store called it quits several days ago. Only one Sears Town center, located in Fort Lauderdale, remains and its future is on borrowed time.
Sears Town was the company’s prototype for a one-stop shopping center geared for smaller retail markets. As part of a company post-war expansion, Sears looked at communities of 50-60,000 residents that were underserved by retail competition. Sears wanted to swoop in and quickly become the leading store in town.
The first Sears Town shopping center opened in Fort Lauderdale, Florida back in August 1955 and has remained in operation for 65 years. But the pioneering complex hasn’t been renovated in years and its future is tenuous at best. Not only has Sears been in a downward spiral for several decades, the Fort Lauderdale Sears Town property is scheduled for redevelopment. In January, plans were introduced to demolish the tired shopping complex and replace it with two 30-story residential towers.
The Fort Lauderdale Sears Town center opened on August 19, 1955 as the area’s first complete … [+] shopping center. The Sears has remained open for 65 years but the center is scheduled for redevelopment.
SEARS ADVERTISING ARCHIVE
The retailer’s Sears Town format was a revolutionary idea for its time. Company officials designed a center that was geared towards one-stop shopping. A moderately-sized Sears store, along with an automobile service station,” would join a supermarket, and several smaller shops. In addition, hundreds of “storeside” parking spaces would surround the center.
The formula worked in Fort Lauderdale for many decades. Sears, Piggly Wiggly, Broward Drug, Monty’s 5&10 and more were retail destinations at one of Fort Lauderdale’s busiest intersections. But Fort Lauderdale has grown considerably over the years. Piggly Wiggly is long gone and so are many of the center’s customers. And sometime in the near future, this last surviving Sears Town will also be gone.
The Fort Lauderdale Sears Town store has operated for 65 years. The center, as seen in 2018, is … [+] scheduled for replacement.
The retailer’s initial reluctance to enter enclosed shopping malls may have been one of its greatest missteps. In 1962, it joined the enclosed Brookdale Center outside Minneapolis but it wasn’t until 1968 that Sears concentrated on shopping mall development.
During the mid 1960s, Sears reactivated the Sears Town concept that had mostly laid dormant after a West Palm Beach complex opened in November 1956. As a number of other retailers concentrated on large shopping malls, Sears spent valuable energy on small centers in modest markets.
The Cumberland, Maryland Sears Town opened in 1963 but its Sears store moved to the newly-built … [+] Country Club Mall in nearby LaVale after the center opened in 1981.
DUPONT PLASTICS ARCHIVE
Between 1963 and 1968, the retailer opened 10 Sears Town one-stop shopping centers, also spelled Searstown, in locations such as Cumberland, Maryland, Pleasantville, New Jersey, Leominster, Massachusetts, and several medium-sized Florida markets.
For the most part, Sears Towns were largely successful but their smaller size offered limited growth. Most Sears Towns thrived for approximately two decades before they were abandoned in favor of newly-built nearby shopping malls. As Sears moved out of its anchor position, the Sears Town name was removed from these modestly-sized centers.
In 1965, Key West civic and business leaders convinced Sears to take a chance and build a Sears Town in the remote Florida community. Key West offered little retail competition and residents traveled hours to the Miami area for large purchases.
After much discussion, the retailer accepted the invitation and began construction. Over 20 acres of partial mangrove swamp was filled in to construct the 169,000 square-foot center.
The Key West Sears Town store opened in 1965 as the area’s first complete shopping center. Its final … [+] day of operation was scheduled for August 8, 2020. The image dates from 2018.
Sears Town Key West opened for business on November 4, 1965 and surpassed all sales goals. With almost 300 employees, it was the community’s first and only true department store. The shopping center and its signature neon sign overlooked the Gulf of Mexico and served as a commercial beacon for Key West.
A Winn Dixie grocery, as shown in 1964, served as the original supermarket anchor at the Key West, … [+] Florida Sears Town center.
As the retailer saw its sales and profit margins dwindle, the Key West Sears store appeared immune to the company’s deteriorating finances. Even as Sears disappeared from most major American markets, the Key West Sears Town remained an anomaly. But as Home Depot
, Ross Dress for Less, and OfficeMax joined the area’s retail landscape it appeared that it was only a matter of time before the company’s woes hit Key West.
In the 1970s, Sears Roebuck was not only the world’s largest retailer, it was responsible for 1% of all goods and services purchased in the United States. Much has changed over the past 40 years. Only about 60 Sears stores remain in operation across the country and Puerto Rico. It’s largely a retail afterthought, if you can find one that’s still open.
A door decal welcomed customers to the Key West Sears store, as pictured in 2018.
Gary Hall, a former member of the Key West store management, remembers a time when enthusiastic shoppers ran through the aisles and jumped over counters during special sale events. “[But] as you know that was a different time as retail goes,” recalls Hall. Hall left Sears in 1989.
But Hall says that not only has Sears changed, Key West has changed. Over the past decades, Key West has transformed from a naval town to a high tourist destination that caters to cruise ships and day trippers. “Not only did we lose Sears, we lost Key West.”
In spite of its remote location, the Florida Keys were not immune to the severe issues brought on by COVID-19. The Key West Sears temporarily closed as part of the quarantine restrictions but reopened in early May. But by the middle of June, store closing signs appeared with little to no notice to workers and customers.
Sears, and its parent firm Transformco, no longer publicly comment on store closures. As of the middle of July, Sears had not yet notified the center’s leasing agency of the location’s pending demise.
The exterior of the Key West Sears Town store as shown in 2018.
The Key West Sears store never made it to today’s proposed closing date. It either ran out of merchandise or just simply closed. Recent phone calls to merchants within the Sears Town complex, including the busy Publix supermarket, were unable to confirm if the local Sears store had indeed closed.
It’s only a matter of time before the “Sears Town” name is removed and changed at the Key West shopping center. The same will likely be true in Fort Lauderdale at the sole surviving Sears Town complex. As the once mighty retailer limps into future months, it is highly likely that the Sears nameplate at its remaining 60 locations will also be quietly removed.
CONFIRMED (FORMER) SEARS TOWN LOCATIONS
• Clearwater, Florida
• Cocoa-Rockledge, Florida
• Columbia, South Carolina
• Cumberland, Maryland
• Fort Lauderdale, Florida (still open, as of 8/8/2020)
• Key West, Florida
• Lakeland, Florida
• Leominster, Massachusetts
• Monroe, Louisiana
• Ocala, Florida
• Pascagoula, Mississippi
• Pleasantville, New Jersey
• Roanoke, Virginia
• Titusville, Florida
• West Palm Beach, Florida