Retail Roundup: Sears is gone; your local family owned shop isn’t

By Michael Piwowarski, news editor.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! After more than a century of existence as a retail powerhouse, this may be the end of the road for Sears, as their parent company, Sears Holdings, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy a few weeks ago.

It’s amazing how Sears started out as a humble catalog order outfit, then over the decades evolved into a monster as it ate up competitors and family-owned small businesses, effectively becoming the new “everything” store.

After reigning as the king of retail for decades, Sears — along with its eventual subsidiary, Kmart — would start to experience a lengthy period of monumental failure under the leadership of Sears Holdings. During the 2010s, the company lost hundreds of millions of dollars and closed thousands of stores in the US. Now, Amazon is the king of retail — and Sears/Kmart are the prey.

It’s kind of like JC Penney’s rise and eventual downfall. During their heyday, they ruled the clothing store arena; now they are slowly and painfully dying away as people turn to Walmart and Target for their outfitting needs.

Meanwhile, small businesses have defied the kings of retail, offering valuable goods and services to their local communities in a way no other retail outfit can. Some have been here for only a few years, others have been in existence for decades, or even a century.

Ed Rehmann & Sons in Chesaning, a clothing retailer specializing in high quality merchandise from Carhartt, Stormy Kromer, Red Wing Shoes and other well-known brands, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019. While Kmart, JC Penney and other giants have ruled the retail realm, Rehmann’s persevered as a small business operating in a small town economy.

“I feel bad for [Sears],” says Nancy Rehmann, co-owner of the store. “But […] one of the reasons why we’re still in business is customer service. I think that sometimes, if you go to these bigger box stores, you’re just a number when you walk through the door. We don’t feel that way about our customer.”

Rehmann further elaborated that, in the age of online and mobile shopping, businesses like Rehmann’s are still relevant as they provide a unique physical shopping experience, where the shopper can actually feel items and, in the case of clothing, try them on and make sure they’re the right size, and receive great customer service.

“I buy things on Amazon periodically,” says Rehmann. “But […] if you’ve got to keep sending it back, and sending it back, that gets old too.”

Many formerly big names in retail have come and gone during the existence of Rehmann’s and other small businesses: Montgomery Ward, Younker’s, Hudson’s and others, with Sears and Kmart currently in the process of falling apart and joining that list.

Although Chesaning has experienced a decline with the bankruptcy of the Showboat Music Festival a few years ago and the closure of several other businesses, Rehmann’s has stuck around as one of the town’s hold-outs, keeping their economy alive.

“We’ve had some other businesses in [Chesaning] that were in business a long time, but some of them retired and just decided not to carry on; some of them didn’t make it,” says Nancy Rehmann. “We are definitely one of the mainstays of Chesaning, and we definitely draw people into our town.”

For their 100th anniversary next year, Rehmann’s will be undergoing a renovation thanks to Carhartt, which will provide a more modern display for their products at no charge.

Although it is uncertain what exactly the future holds for Ed Rehmann & Sons and other family-owned small businesses, one thing is for certain: they have outlived the mighty Sears dreadnaught, are withstanding competition from online/mobile shopping alternatives and are here to serve the local community for the time being.

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