The old Sears store in Soldotna is gone, replaced by a new Sears dealer store at the Kenai Mall in Kenai. That could be good news for the mall.
"We're trying to build on the traffic Sears is going to bring, to bring more traffic to the rest of the mall," said Bob Martin, leasing agent for Carr-Gottstein Proper-ties.
Meanwhile, the new Sears dealer store is different than the old store that closed May 13 in Soldotna. Sears Roebuck and Co. owned the Soldotna store and paid its staff of 14. However, it leased the building from the U.S. Postal Service, which wants to sell the building and declined to renew the lease. Sears managers could not find another suitable site.
Instead, they decided to close the company store and recruit an independent dealer to carry Sears products. Bryan Lien, former manager of the Soldotna store, opened the dealer store June 6 at the Kenai Mall.
"There's more risk, but Sears is a good company to have behind you, as far as inventory and support with advertising," Lien said. "And there's enough of these stores across the country, they have enough data at their fingertips to tune the inventory year by year."
Sears still provides the inventory, and Lien earns commissions on what he sells. Sears provides advertising and signs. Lien leases the space from Carr-Gottstein Properties, provides the utilities and employs the staff. The new dealer store employs just five people, he said.
"We sell a lot more per person," he said. "There's days where if 10 people all walk in the door at the same time and they all want help, they may have to wait their turns in line."
However, Lien said he will add staff as demand requires. Five is just a starting point.
"We didn't want to start with too many," he said.
The pay is different, he said, but declined to discuss the changes. Lien said he is not yet able to provide employees with a benefit package. He plans to wait a year to see how well the new store succeeds.
The dealer store has about twice as many appliances on the floor as the former Soldotna store did but carries fewer single tools. Lien said he plans to adjust the product mix to customer needs as closely as Sears will allow.
He said comments from customers largely have been positive, though some Soldotna residents complain about the longer drive.
"We've had a lot of people looking, complimenting the store," he said. "It's a nice store with lots of room."
Carrs left the Kenai Mall in 1992, Kmart opened its Kenai store in 1993, and Fred Meyer moved from the Kenai Mall to its Soldotna store in 1994. Many of the smaller shops that filled the Kenai Mall subsequently left.
That follows a national trend, Martin said. The big stores that anchored indoor malls for decades have opened free-standing big-box stores and expanded their product lines. With the big anchors gone, the smaller merchants have left the indoor malls for strip malls with outside store fronts.
The back spaces in many indoor malls have become difficult to lease to retailers, and owners have converted them to office and institutional space.
Carr-Gottstein Properties is remodeling the 88,000-square-foot Kenai Mall to match that trend, he said. It has leased nearly 17,000 square feet at the back to the Alaska Employment Service and the Center for Employment Education. It leased about 10,500 square feet, half the space formerly occupied by Fred Meyer, to Lien. It is remodeling the mall so that small retail spaces that formerly faced the inside hall now open to the parking lot in front.
"We're making a strip mall with two anchor spots. Sears is one. The state is the other. They generate a lot of traffic with their job center," Martin said.
Hopefully, he said, business at Sears will boost traffic to the smaller stores and vice versa.
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