FairOaks exit: End of the line for another store

When original anchor department store JCPenney closes at Fair Oaks Mall for good Monday night, ending a 93-year run in Columbus, it will be the latest victim of a complex and evolving retail market.

Penney’s won’t be the first store to close at FairOaks Mall this year. In April, the local Kirlin’s Hallmark closed after 27 years at the mall, about the same time The J Nicole clothing store also left.

Elsewhere in the mall on 25th Street, the names of other former tenants — Picture This, Brendan Diamonds, U Craft Me Up and Hibbett Sports — are still visible above empty storefronts that outnumber current occupants.

“This mall used to be full,” said shopper Billie Ruiz of Columbus. “But now, so many of the stores are closed. Maybe there’s just not enough foot traffic through the mall to support Penney’s.”

In mid-March, when JCPenney announced it was closing 138 stores, including the one in Columbus, FairOaks general manager Kim Eckrote-Showalter said she was optimistic about securing a new tenant for the 34,000-square-foot space.

But a written statement last week from the FairOaks Mall management indicated that announcement of a new anchor tenant isn’t imminent.

“Retailers, across the country, are focused on finding new ways of doing business. FairOaks Mall is like every other mall, located in secondary markets, hit hard by the changing retail environment. We are aggressively pursuing other opportunities to fill the space and are open to many possible uses. Obviously, this is a slow process for all parties involved,” the statement said.

The JCPenney store represents one of the last local clothing stores that offers brand name clothing popular among young people, said one shopper with two teenage girls.

“It kind of forces parents to go all the way to Greenwood or Taylorsville (Edinburgh Premium Outlets) to buy school clothes our kids want,” April Pruitt of Columbus said.

For Charles Madison of Franklin, the Penney’s store in Columbus has also offered a good variety of sizes in men’s fashion that he can’t find at most other retailers.

“I have extra long arms, so I want to try on everything before I buy it,” Madison said.

JCPenney has also provided Columbus shoppers with competitive prices, substantial savings during sales and an attractive ambiance, shopper Billie Ruiz of Columbus said.

Besides clothing, the outlet has also featured a variety of unique housewares and home décor items.

But with a liquidation underway for more than three months, there’s not much left inside during the final days for JCPenney in Columbus.

In the middle of last week, the entire eastern half of the store was void of merchandise, as well as the far west side. Signs were posted that all fixtures, business furniture, display cupboards and store equipment used to operate the store was being sold for half its normal value.

While signs promised 80 to 90 percent off the retail price on remaining merchandise, only eight multi-arm racks containing men’s clothing remained. Although there was a larger selection of female apparel still left, most appeared to be either formalwear or clothing more suitable for colder temperatures than mid-summer.

The store closing has impacted about 25 workers led by Michelle Ellis, a 31-year employee of JCPenney who has spent the past six years as store manager in Columbus.

“There’s no other word than sad for the employees,” Ellis said. “We’ll miss our customers as much as they tell us they’ll miss us.”

Since most of the Penney employees are part-time, it’s unclear how many will qualify for unemployment benefits, Ellis said.

But employees will receive separation benefits, which includes assistance identifying other employment opportunities and outplacement services, the company said.

“A number of us have transferred to stores in nearby cities, and some have already found positions with other companies,” Ellis said. In addition, a voluntary early retirement program was also initiated.

The first FairOaks Mall anchor store to close was Kmart in April 2014. Now, the 86,500-square-feet of space on the mall’s east side is occupied by Dunham Sports.

Monday’s closing of Penney’s comes as news reports circulate that the parent company of the third FairOaks anchor store is having serious financial difficulties.

Bon-Ton Stores Inc., which operates Carson’s Department Stores among other retail brands, fired its CEO in May after six consecutive years of annual losses, leaving its stock price languishing well below $1, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported.

Opening in 1990, the 50,000-square-foot Carson’s operated as Elder-Beerman’s at FairOaks until changing its name five years ago.

Last spring, a nationally known financial advising firm warned investors there’s a significant risk that Bon-Ton will go bankrupt within less than two years.

If sales trends remain weak, Carson’s and five other Bon-Ton-owned store brands “could disappear for good,” Motley Fool columnist Adam Levine-Weinberg told investors.

The Indianapolis Business Journal contributed to this report.

Penney's timeline in Columbus

1924: J.C. Penney opens at 309 Washington St. in a portion of the Bassett building.

1929: Plans unveiled to move store from the corner of Fourth and Washington streets into the room formerly occupied by F. Rosenbush clothing store.

1933: 6,000 square feet of floor space added.

1938: New owners W.W. and A.T. Wehrle of Newark, Ohio, plan to enlarge the building.

1952: Columbus store marks chain’s 50th anniversary. At the time, J.C. Penney was largest merchandising operation in the world with more than 1,600 stores and 70,000 employees.

1953: Remodeled, installed fluorescent light fixtures on all three floors, replaced wooden floors with brown asphalt tile.

1964: Plans unveiled a plan to move the J.C. Penney store into proposed Columbus Shopping Center at National and Beam roads; new store to feature 49,200 square feet of shopping space and a free-standing auto center.

1969: Corporate office decides to open stores on Sundays after Sears Roebuck & Co. announced same plans.

1969: J.C. Penney opens new store in Columbus Shopping Center.

1969: Auto center opens.

1977: Remodeled, added jewelry department and enclosed cosmetics department.

1983: Closed auto center.

1985: Company unveils plans to move to 25th Street into yet-to-be-developed mall, now FairOaks Mall.

1989: Penney store opens as one of the anchors of FairOaks Mall.

March 17, 2017: Company announces plans to close 138 JCPenney stores nationwide, including one in Columbus.

Monday: The FairOaks store is scheduled to close after regular hours conclude.

Nearest stores

27 JCPenney stores will remain open in Indiana.  The two nearest to Columbus are at:

  • 1224 E. Tipton St., Seymour.  Services include clothing (including Big and Tall for men, Plus Sizes for women), salon, watches, body gear, jewelry and luggage. Phone: 812-522-4149.
  • 1251 U.S. 31 North, Greenwood.  Same services as Seymour, as well as custom decorating, Disney collection, furniture, wedding registry, mattresses, optical department and portrait studio. Phone: 317-882-7339.

Shopping online

Although their store at FairOaks Mall will close Monday night, shoppers in the Columbus area can still obtain items online from JCPenney.

Online merchandise categories are: For the Home, Bed & Bath, Window, Appliances, Women, Lingerie, Mens, Seniors, Kids, Body, Shoes, Handbags, Jewelry, Salon, and Sephora.  There is also a clearance category.

Visit jcpenney.com

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.