Sears to return to downtown Walla Walla

A Sears Hometown Store is in the works to open on Main Street.

Advertisement

— The Sears national retail brand is not only returning to the community but also to the neighborhood of its local roots.

The owner of two Sears Hometown Store branches in Oregon plans to open his third on Walla Walla's Main Street this fall.

The former home of the Blue Mountain Humane Society Thrift Store, 207 E. Main St., will be remade for the branch, a smaller independently owned version of a Sears that primarily features appliances and other home-related items.

Sears Hometown Store owner Scott Hester said he plans to fill about 8,000 square feet of the 10,500-square-foot leased space with appliances, home and garden equipment, tools, exercise equipment and mattresses. His targeted opening is the start of October. Hester said he'll likely hire about five to seven employees initially.

The opening will mark the re-establishment of a Sears presence after the closure of the Rose Street store last spring. The business has long had a presence in the community, moving to the Blue Mountain Mall in the late 1980s after being part of the downtown landscape in what is now the Walla Walla Sew & Vac & Spas location. What shoppers see, however, won't be a version of Sears they've experienced in the past.

The Sears Hometown Store model is becoming more common in communities on the outskirts of population centers. The stores are locally owned and operated businesses that sell Sears products essentially on consignment for the company. More than 900 such stores operate across the country with slightly more autonomy but with Sears inventory and backed by its warranties and service.

"It's a real nice deal for more rural areas," said Hester, who owns stores in Baker City and La Grande, Ore.

"You're going to get the same prices in Walla Walla that you're going to get in the Tri-Cities or Portland or Seattle or anywhere else. We follow the Sears pricing schedule, run the same promotions as the big stores. It's a real nice concept."

Hester said he was approached by corporate officials about expanding to Walla Walla earlier this year.

"At that point, I'd only had my second store for a little over a year. I wasn't looking to go anywhere else," he said.

However, he began to research more about the community and was blown away by the traffic downtown.

"The amount of people that were downtown just shopping or walking through -- it was very exciting from a retailer's point of view," he said.

The store will also help diversify downtown Walla Walla's offerings, said Elio Agostini, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation.

"Retail mix is always critical in every mall or downtown area, and Sears is going to make a major difference to the retail mix," he said.

With the deterioration of the mall property and the sluggish economy, downtown has proven to be one area of town that continues to attract new business, Agostini said.

"In the five years that I've been here I have never had more inquiries about downtown than I do right now," he said.

Most who call are looking for 2,000-to-5,000-square-foot properties.

"It seems that as long as we keep working hard and making the downtown as shopper-friendly, as pedestrian-friendly as we can this is the only growth market that we see in the Valley," he said.

Much work needs to be done on the Main Street property before the newest store's opening.

Travis Watts of Coldwell Banker First Realtors, who's been working with Hester, said the interior will be completely made over with flooring, walls, a soft ceiling and fixtures.

Sears generally estimates the cost to open one of its Hometown Stores from scratch at around $100,000, according to information on its website. Actual costs depend on square footage, merchandise assortment and location.

Interior fixtures required by the company are estimated around $32,000, while point-of-sale, office equipment and furniture is figured at about $25,000.

Other costs include leasehold improvements, insurance, utility deposits, permits, legal fees and more.

Hester said the undisclosed costs to overhaul the building will be shared with the property owner. The second floor of the building will likely not be utilized. A staircase inside has already been removed.

As time goes by he hopes to work on the exterior as well. A ramp in the back of the property will be removed. Freight will be delivered and loaded on the back side of the property, he said.

In keeping with the model of the Sears Hometown Store, he said shoes and clothing will not be in the store's future.

"That's really not even an option," he said.

Hester said work on the property will begin as soon as the city gives its permit approval.

"We're really looking forward to it," he said. "We think it's going to be a good deal for everybody all around."