A dismantled sign sits leaning outside a Sears department store one day after it closed as part of multiple store closures by Sears Holdings Corp in the United States in Nanuet, New York, U.S., January 7, 2019.Image copyright

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Sears sales have declined for years

Sears, the long-troubled US department store chain, is set to stagger on.

Billionaire Eddie Lampert, a hedge fund financier who is chairman of Sears and its former chief executive, has won a bankruptcy court auction to purchase the company for $5.2bn (£4bn).

Assuming it is approved, his plan will keep more than 400 stores open and preserve up to 45,000 jobs.

But doubts remain about the prospect of a turnaround for the firm, which has seen years of sales declines.

In October, the firm, which also owns Kmart, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, seeking court protection to reorganise debts and sell off assets, in the hope of avoiding liquidation.

The company had appeared headed to closure after creditors rejected an earlier bid by Mr Lampert, whose leadership has been controversial.

But after days of negotiations, a majority of creditors accepted Mr Lampert’s higher, revised offer.

The restructuring committee for Sears Holdings said the firm was “pleased to have reached a deal that would provide a path for Sears to emerge from the chapter 11 process”.

“Importantly, the consummation of the transaction would preserve employment for tens of thousands of associates, as well as the relationships with many vendors and suppliers who provide Sears with goods and services,” it said.

A bankruptcy judge must approve the deal for it to move forward. That hearing is scheduled for 1 February, Sears said.

If the court approves the deal, Sears will emerge a “shadow of its former self,” said Christina Boni, a department store analyst for Moody’s.

“In our view the company will continue to be hobbled by the same untenable problems, given that its effort to resuscitate performance by shrinking has mainly been unsuccessful,” she said.

‘Shadow of its former self’

Sears, which traces its roots to a mail-order catalogue started in the 1880s, is the latest in a string of retailers who have faced financial struggles, as shoppers make more purchases online.

Once a fixture in shopping malls around the US, the firm had about 690 stores when it filed for bankruptcy in October – down from 1,700 at the end of 2014.

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Media captionFrom boom to (nearly) bust: Sears struggles for shopping relevancy

Critics blame some of the problems on Mr Lampert, who has served simultaneously as landlord, creditor, investor and manager.

They fault the firm for spending money to purchase shares – inflating share prices – while under-investing in stores and selling valuable parts of the business to companies affiliated with Mr Lampert.

Last year, as part of the bankruptcy proceeding, a group owed money by Sears asked for an investigation of his role at the company.

They argued that some transactions raised concerns his hedge fund ESL Investments and other insiders “may have exercised undue influence to siphon value away from the company”.

Mr Lampert’s initial offer would have shielded him from liability for any claims arising from that investigation.