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Sears Limps Through What Could Be Its Final Holiday Season

With just a handful of stores left and much of its real estate on the block, the once-dominant retailer has a grim outlook.

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Illustration: Anna Haifisch for Bloomberg Businessweek

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Barely three decades ago, Sears was the world’s largest retailer—as well as the original financial supermarket, owning everything from insurer Allstate and Discover card to Coldwell Banker real estate. And this time of year its stores, once a fixture in malls across America, would be crowded with holiday shoppers snapping up clothing, home goods, appliances or toys that their kids had carefully circled on the pages of the retailer’s venerable Christmas Wish Book.

This holiday season the company barely exists, with fewer than two dozen full-size stores in operation, compared with the more than 3,500 Sears and Kmart stores operated by Sears Holdings Corp. at its height. In most malls—a retail format that prospered for decades in part because of the drawing power of Sears—the chain’s once-hulking emporiums have been subdivided into smaller spaces for other stores, refashioned for nonretail operations such as medical offices or gyms, or simply left vacant. The Sears estate in late October finally wrapped up its acrimonious four-year-long bankruptcy, but the company’s diminished size and uncertain future are an ignominious comedown for a company that for more than a century defined American retailing, first through its mail-order catalog and then with its mammoth network of stores.