Montgomery Ward Shuts Its Doors

ByABC News

Dec. 28, 2000 -- Retailer Montgomery Ward Inc. is shutting downafter nearly 128 years in business and numerous attempts toentice shoppers back to its struggling stores, employees said today.

Wards spokesman Chuck Knittle declined to comment but said thecompany planned to make an announcement later in the day.

Dozens of employees were seen leaving the company’s headquarterswith boxes in hand today. Several said they had been told at ameeting that General Electric Co.’s GE Capital Unit, owner of the250-store retailer, was pulling financial support from Wards in thewake of sluggish holiday sales. GE Capital referred all calls toWards headquarters in Chicago.

“I’m just devastated,” Anece Rich, a 28-year Wards employeewho worked in the company’s mail room, said as she left Wardsheadquarters. “They took care of us as best they could.”

A supplier said Wards officials had stopped accepting orders atits distribution centers and had told him they were closing all 250stores.

Company’s End Was Expected

“They are shutting down. It’s official,” said RonnieGoldfinger, senior VP of Highland Park-based Performance MarketingInc., a manufacturer’s representative that sold consumerelectronics to Wards.

Retail analysts also said they had heard the end of the companywas near.

“It’s sad. It’s too bad because a lot of effort has gone intotrying to save the thing,” said Sid Doolittle, a Chicago-basedretail consultant who spent 28 years as a Wards executive.

Begun in 1872, Wards pioneered mail-order catalogs when it cameout with a single sheet of dry-good items for sale. It was thefirst U.S. mail-order house to sell general merchandise. Sears,Roebuck & Co. wasn’t founded until 1886 and didn’t put out itsfirst general merchandise catalog until a decade after that.

Ward opened its first store in Plymouth, Ind., in 1926.

But the company, which now employs about 37,000 in 31 states, has been financially unstable for years.

Hope had been rekindled in August 1999 when the company emergedfrom Chapter 11 bankruptcy, announcing a plan to revamp many of itsstores.

But some analysts said it was too little too late.

Too Much Competition

“Wards has not established themselves as anything distinctivein the marketplace,” said George Whalin, president ofCalifornia-based Retail Management Consultants. “There’s just noreason to go there — unless maybe they’re the closest store to yourhouse.”

Whalin said it had become increasingly difficult for Wards tosurvive in a retail market swamped with competitors — everythingfrom Home Depot to Best Buy and Target.

News of Wards’ apparent demise comes two days afterMassachusetts-based discount retailer Bradlees Inc. announced thatit is going out of business.

“It’s brutal. It’s as competitive as anything out there,”Whalin said.

Wards had been shooting for sales growth this year of about 9percent. Instead, it hovered at a sluggish 2 percent.

“It’s like leaving part of your life behind. My heart’sbreaking, but I’m going to go and look for another job, becausethat’s all you can do,” Sharon Bray, a 35-year employee who workedin systems quality assurance, told WBBM.

She held out little hope that anything would save her job.

“No more Wards, not unless someone jumps in and buys us,” shesaid.