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Everything Must Go: Record Pace of Shut Stores Fuels Business for 'the Closers'

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/3/2020 Chip Cutter
a person standing in front of a store© Yana Paskova for The Wall Street Journal

Part sales guru, part therapist, a new breed of retail worker travels the U.S. shuttering locations and liquidating merchandise.

In the hollowed-out retail economy, Jerry Robertson finds himself almost continuously in demand. He specializes in closing stores.

Mr. Robertson travels the U.S., winding down one dying storefront after the next, from a gift shop in Kentucky to an Ace Hardware in New York.

Part sales guru, part therapist, Mr. Robertson has deployed to 28 states, from Amish country in Indiana to West Hollywood, slashing prices for deal-hungry customers while consoling longtime employees and managers who are often working the final days of their jobs.

“It’s just really tough” in retail, said the 60-year-old Mr. Robertson, who managed stores for Walgreens in Texas and Florida before stumbling into his store-closing career in 2003 after reading a Craigslist ad. “You get work all the time.”

He and others doing such jobs are part of a nomadic segment of workers thriving amid industry chaos. Last year, retailers announced plans to shutter more than 9,300 U.S. stores, a record, according to Coresight Research. Liquidation companies that help close stores report that they are busier than ever. As consumers shift more of their spending online and Amazon.com Inc. continues to reshape the landscape, many expect more fallout.

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On a recent earnings call of B. Riley Financial, the parent company of liquidation giant Great American Group, Chairman Bryant Riley told investors that the liquidator was experiencing “one of the busiest periods in its history.”

Great American has closed more than 6,800 stores since 2013, including recent liquidations for Barneys New York, Toys R Us, Payless ShoeSource, and Gymboree.

Mr. Robertson has closed 90 stores since 2003, including four in 2019. He is currently liquidating an Ace Hardware in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood. On a recent December afternoon, standing near a wall of artificial Christmas trees and half-price Santa figurines, he repeatedly answered questions from confused shoppers and kept watch over the store. Mr. Robertson works alone and typically spends seven weeks winding down each location, working six days a week. He tends to stay at budget motels, like Rodeway Inn, or a guest room in an Airbnb. Since many closings overlap with the holidays, he often misses Christmas with his wife and children at his home in San Antonio.

Sometimes, even he can’t resist the deals. He renovated his family’s home with deeply discounted items he spotted in closings. He bought 20 gallons of paint at 70% off, or about $10 a gallon, in one hardware store closing. He also has picked up faucets, ceiling fans, a garbage disposal and many lawn tools, transporting them in his wife’s old van. “I could load that sucker up,” he said.

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Closings can vary by retailer. Some consultants work directly for a liquidation company brought in as part of a bankruptcy filing. Other retailers hire extra hourly workers to shut stores.

In late December, Sears and Kmart had more than 50 open job postings online for cashiers, stockers and loss-prevention associates, among others, at stores slated to close soon. A spokesman for Transformco, the retailers’ parent company, declined to comment.

One reason stores turn to outside help is that closing a location is a “very involved process,” said Gary Wright, president at G.A. Wright Sales, a Denver-based marketing company that works on liquidation sales. “It’s very different than doing business as usual.”

Stores that had been dead typically become mobbed during a closing, Mr. Wright said. Executing a massive sale takes operational know-how.

The magic discount: 13% off, said Mr. Robertson, an independent contractor for DWS Retail Sales, which helps liquidate stores. He can’t explain why, but in the early days of a store’s slow wind down, that relatively low discount is surprisingly effective, he and colleagues have found.

Mr. Robertson usually gets paid a base fee for his work along with a portion of sales, so he has an incentive to sell as much merchandise at the highest price possible. A strong closing can bring him $20,000 after expenses, though he typically makes less.

As a closing date approaches, steeper discounts are called for. At small independent stores, dropping prices can irk managers who may be reluctant to sell an item below cost, Mr. Robertson said. He tries to reason with them, telling them it could fetch $10 now, or nothing in a few weeks and then end up in the trash.

While closing a model-train shop in St. Louis, Mr. Robertson asked to see the owner’s mailing list so he could send postcards to longtime customers, inviting them to the closing sale. A problem soon emerged: Many of the customers were no longer living.

“I go look at it, and he says, ’Oh he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead,’ or ’They’re in bad health,’” Mr. Robertson said of his conversation with the owner.

While Mr. Robertson said closing stores can become emotional, he’s happy to have a job he sees as largely recession proof.

“You know a recession is going to happen sooner or later. That’s more stores,” he said. “Especially now, because Amazon is bigger.”

Tracy Ray, 58, spent decades managing big-box stores, repeatedly changing locations as the stores shut down. In 2013, she decided she had had enough and switched sides. Ms. Ray now works as a store closer for Great American, traveling around the U.S. and Australia.

Based near Louisville, Ky., Ms. Ray often doesn’t know where she is being deployed until a week before an assignment begins. “I’ve been here and there and everywhere,” she said.

She keeps a bag packed in a spare bedroom of her home with a dress shirt and pants for early in a closing, when she introduces herself to workers, and jeans for an inevitable cleanup at the end.

In 2019, she closed about 10 locations. She is currently on assignment in North Carolina, closing an office-supply store. She keeps up with friends she’s met around the world on Instagram and Facebook, and her retired husband sometimes joins her on the road.

Ms. Ray said she empathizes with shellshocked employees because she, too, has worked for a retailer going under.

“I think I’m fortunate and unfortunate that I went through it so many times myself that I know what the feeling is,” she said. “That takes away a lot of fear from employees.”

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