It's been a tough run for Sears (OTCMKTS: SHLDQ). After serving as a mall and shopping center anchor for years, the once-thriving department store is now nothing more than a dying brand.
It used to be the case that you could drive to Anytown, USA, and spot a Sears in the distance. Now, the famed department store has whittled down its footprint from roughly 1,000 stores to under 40.
But if there's one thing Sears always seemed to have going for it, it was space. Sears stores, in their heyday, were enormous and housed a vast selection of everything from apparel to household goods to appliances. And those stores allowed customers to move around comfortably rather than feel cramped between aisles.
While the Sears brand itself may be beyond hope, the space those stores once occupied can be put to good use. In fact, one empty Sears store is already being transformed into a place customers will no doubt want to frequent -- but this time, it won't be for incredible savings on scarves and refrigerators.
A new dining experience
The Sears location at Simon Property Group's Burlington Mall in Massachusetts isn't just going to sit there with all that square footage going to waste. Instead, it's being converted into a high-end dining gallery.
So far, four different restaurants have signed leases to open up locations in that space. And as more come aboard, that spot has the potential to become a major dining destination.
Of course, this isn't the only example of an empty Sears location being put to good use. Earlier this year, when coronavirus vaccines began rolling out, the professionals administering those shots needed a way to vaccinate hundreds of people by the day, all the while upholding social distancing requirements to keep everyone safe. And Sears came to the rescue by being converted to a vaccine distribution center.
At this point, the need for mass vaccination centers is waning. The point, however, is that mall or shopping center operators with empty Sears locations shouldn't hesitate to get creative and repurpose that space.
Some other ideas?
There's been a huge demand for walk-in medical clinics since the start of the pandemic. Converting unused Sears stores to urgent care centers, therefore, makes a lot of sense. In some cases, it could even pay to explore the option of converting Sears stores into schools for districts with buildings that are currently overcrowded. Incidentally, that's already happening in an old Macy's location in Vermont.
A smart use for a vast amount of space
While a Sears revival is pretty much off the table at this point, it's certainly in mall and shopping center operators' best interests to make the most of that space. Sears becoming a dining hub is a great example of turning vacant space into a revenue-generating opportunity. If more mall and shopping center operators get on board with similar ideas, it's bound to make real estate investors a lot happier -- and wealthier.