LIVINGSTON, NJ — As liquidation sales begin at the Sears located at the Livingston Mall, community members are reacting with mixed feelings to the news that the local retailer will be closing its doors later this year.

Recognizing that shopping habits “have been rapidly changing,” the Township of Livingston recently adopted a new Master Plan that re-examined uses in all of Livingston’s business zones. But as it specifically relates to the Livingston Mall, Mayor Rudy Fernandez said the closing of Sears “doesn’t come as a shock.”

“We have been speaking with Simon Properties on a regular basis for many years, and in fact met with Simon representatives in the days prior to the announced Sears closing,” said Fernandez, adding that the new Sears has continued to close stores since being acquired out of bankruptcy in February 2019, with the most recent closings leaving only three Sears stores in New Jersey.

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The mayor further explained that Sears owning its own property "slightly complicates the matter,” but expressed confidence that the township will be able work successfully with the property owners moving forward after doing so with previous property owners whose tenants filed bankruptcy—including Circuit City, Borders and Linens ‘n Things.

The announcement was a popular item of discussion this week among members of the “Livingston Moms” Facebook group, who were asked to share their thoughts about the closing and what they might like to see replace the longtime retailer.

A common response included inquiries regarding the status of the proposed Marriott Residence Inn and restaurant that was approved in 2016 after several months of discussion. Many stated that if the hotel-restaurant proposal falls through, they would like to see a restaurant move into the vacant space at the mall.

In addition to confirming that the township "is still involved in litigation" for the proposed hotel, Fernandez also clarified that the mall owner, Simon Property Group, still holds a liquor license from the days when an Applebee’s existed there. Therefore, he said, the owner could choose to open a restaurant at the mall regardless of whether a hotel-restaurant is built in the proposed area of the Livingston Mall parking lot.

“We were successful at the trial level, but it was appealed; so we're still in litigation and it's still an ongoing matter,” the mayor said regarding the proposed hotel. “But a restaurant [at the mall] is always an option. Simon still has the Applebee's liquor license, so that's always an option that Simon Properties can take notwithstanding the hotel. The two, to me, are not necessarily related at all."

Another popular suggestion among the moms was to fill the vacancy with an indoor activity center for local youth, such as a children’s museum.

“The only reason we go to Livingston Mall is for the indoor play area with our toddler when it is too cold and raining to play outside,” said Kariona Lam. “I wish there were more indoor play space for kids in our area. A restaurant or better/healthier options in the food court would be great.”

Karen Wu, who was surprised that Sears was able to operate for as long as it did, added that she would like to see it become a “collaborative space” that has “a children's play area, dining, bowling, arcade for teens, fitness classes and events.”

“Think of it as a modern, higher-end YMCA minus the pool,” said Wu, noting that such a space would likely need to operate on a membership. “The membership concept will provide a steady stream of cash flow to the property owner so long as members remain current.”

Some group members stated that they had never been fans of Sears, with a few noting that they currently frequent other stores in the Livingston Mall but have had trouble finding what they need at Sears.

“I am not upset to see it go out of business,” said Deborah Peters Jordan. “My parents shopped at Sears when I was a child, but I never did as an adult except if I was desperate to find something obscure for my children and take a peek inside. They became a store with low-quality clothing and did not seem to update with the times.”

Jordan suggested that Simon Properties consider an outlet for the location—such as Gap, Banana Republic, Coach or a Disney Store—and more than a dozen “Livingston Moms” reacted positively to this idea.

“I would love for Livingston Mall to turn into an outlet mall like the Bergen County Mall,” said Jordan. “I think that would really revitalize the mall and bring something a little bit different to the area.”

There were, however, some community members who said they were sad to see the store go and wondered what it would mean for the future of retail businesses in the area.

“I'm sorry for the mall and for the community that our community is having such a difficult time supporting the mall commerce,” said Helen Goldner Engel. “It is surely a sign of more failure to come. Even though e-commerce has begun to become more heavily weighted in our community, there are many thriving malls around the country. I'm so saddened that our community is having such a difficult time supporting the mall in general.”

AnnMarie Korte Mullen agreed with others that it was not surprising to hear Sears would be closing, but was disappointed nonetheless.

“Sears used to be a staple place to buy almost anything,” she said. “I can remember getting the several-inch-thick catalog and spending hours looking through it. What was the favorite thing on each page, how much things cost—there was something in it for everyone. Kenmore was a respectable brand name for appliances, and Craftsman was the tools many had in their toolboxes. In time, more and more competition made it more difficult to compete.”

Ellen Wilder added that Sears had been “an anchor store” when she was a child and did well by selling items in a variety of categories; but things changed when online shopping became more popular, she said.

“Now [Sears is] good for a random thing here or there, and unfortunately a store cannot survive on that,” said Wilder. “Most unfortunate is that you run into more people in the Short Hills Mall from town than you do in the Livingston Mall. The entire mall seemed to be on the wrong trajectory for many, many years…If there were some nicer stores, I think the mall would succeed.”

Kelley Sayer Reinhardt also spoke generally about shopping malls, stating that although they were once “the place to be,” they now "seem to be a thing of the past.” As for Sears, Reinhardt noted that the nationwide retailer has been floundering “as a whole” and hopes that whatever goes in its place in Livingston will “keep the mall going” or “at least attract people.”

Transformco, the parent company of Sears, announced last year that it would close more than 50 Sears locations as well as 45 Kmart stores nationwide. The final three remaining Sears stores in New Jersey will be located in Hackensack, Jersey City and Rockaway.

"After careful review, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to close the Sears stores in Livingston and New Brunswick, NJ," said Larry Costello, a spokesman for Transformco. "The liquidation sales begin this week and the stores are planned to close in mid-April. We encourage customers to continue shopping on Sears.com for all their product needs."

The Livingston Sears, located at 112 Eisenhower Parkway, continues to sell home merchandise, apparel, automotive products and more as part of the liquidation sale. Store hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. 5 to 7 p.m.