Shopko’s nearly six-decade run ended Sunday with a frenzy of shoppers looking for last-minute deals.
Amidst the hubbub was an unmistakable sense of sadness and finality — the end of a Wisconsin-based retail chain that had once been a key shopping destination in many communities and, for many employees, was more than a job.
“It feels like a bad dream you just can’t wake up from,” said Connie Burnet, who had worked at the Fond du Lac Shopko for 20 years. “Today, it will all be over.”
Fifty-seven years after pharmacist James Ruben and a group of investors opened a $1 million department store on Green Bay’s Military Avenue, the bankrupt company’s 11 remaining Wisconsin stores locked up for the last time Sunday evening.
Burnet likened the closure to a “death in the family.”
Teri Fechter of Little Chute looks on during the final day of business at Shopko in Appleton on Sunday. (Photo: Chris Kohley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
In Fond du Lac, the store’s last day began under overcast skies, with shoppers forming lines more than a half an hour before opening, the only brightness coming from the yellow signs that read “last day.”
Customers came slow at first, taking carts and leaning against them while they waited. As the clock edged closer to the final opening of the doors at 9 a.m., however, cars came in packs and lines stretched past both store entrances in a scene that reminded shoppers of Black Friday.
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When the doors opened, more than 30 customers rushed into the store. Almost immediately, Burant found the decorations she was seeking, while others pushed down aisles, picking up clothing, dishware, blankets and whatever was left.
The scene was repeated at each of the company’s remaining stores.
“I’m surprised by the sheer chaos,” Melissa Eades said, as her daughter ran around the Wausau store with a new hair bow to take home.
A long decline
The Ashwaubenon-based company declared bankruptcy and began store closures and liquidation sales earlier this year after years of financial trouble.
Shopko had found itself beset on all sides by competitors just as shopper expectations began to evolve. It proved unable to keep up.
Strategies to turn the company around had floundered even as its private equity owner, Sun Capital Partners, continued to collect dividends and consulting.
And so the company sought bankruptcy protection from creditors on Jan. 16, declaring it had less than $1 billion in assets and more than $1 billion in debt.
There was originally hope, though: Shopko executives laid out a plan to close unprofitable stores, exit the pharmacy business and find a buyer to keep the retailer going. When no buyer emerged, Shopko announced in March it would close all of its stores, sell its optical business and go out of business, putting about 15,000 employees out of work.
In her sadness, Burnet felt anger, as well, towards Sun Capital.
“They did a lot of damage for a lot of good working people,” she said.
Wisconsin Rapids store manager Curt Brozik said he did everything he could to ease the sadness and boost the morale of his employees. They took a group photo in front of the store Sunday morning, memorializing the family feel that had been cultivated over the decades.
“Shopko is not a building, it’s the people,” Brozik said. “Shopko will never die as long as these people are around. We will always be family.”
Brozik said he tried to make a bad situation as tolerable as possible for that family for the last few months. Managers worked with other businesses in the area to try to find jobs for Shopko employees once the store closed. Many of those businesses were willing to hold off on training their new employees until after the store closed.
Empty shelves and final markdowns
Eric Rathsack worked at seven different Shopko locations over the last 32 years, working his way up to manager of the Oshkosh store. On Sunday he was running around the store trying to help customers and staff.
“I’m just overall sad,” Rathsack said. “I going to miss the customers. I’m going to miss the teammates.”
Two weeks ago the shelves in Oshkosh, like other Shopko stores, had been completely stocked with merchandise, Rathsack said.
On Sunday, many of the shelves and aisles were nearly bare but for leftover flyers advertising 90% off. Other shelves were stocked with a mishmash of items. Yellow tape cordoned off some areas of the store, creating a maze-like feel.
In Fond du Lac, only a few chairs, a desk and a coffee table remained in the furniture department. In some places, discarded items sat on the floor while employees tried to clean and organize as best they could.
Appleton’s Shopko was the last location standing in the Fox Cities, closing after sister branches in Kimberly, Neenah and Menasha were already gone.
The store was the 15th to open and operated for just a few years shy of half a century.
“We were No. 1 in total volume when you combine optical, pharmacy and the main store,” said store manager Mark Grasmick.
By early afternoon Sunday, shoppers found little left to buy.
Random items were consolidated at the front of the store — 15-cent plastic Easter pails, eggs and grass; size 5XL floral shorts; $2.49 satchel handbags; makeup in dark colors like java and mocha, Fourth of July placemats and 2019 calendars for 40 cents.
The Green Bay area previously lost stores in De Pere, Howard, Bellevue and on Green Bay’s west side in the last few months. The last three stores, in the Bay Park Square and East Town malls and in Suamico, closed Sunday.
At the East Town Mall store in Green Bay, store fixtures sold for $1 each and the last boxes of cosmetics, seasonal holiday merchandise, Green Bay Packers T-shirts and Shopko store office supplies went up for sale. Even rolls of red and yellow “clearance” stickers could be bought for 90 percent off.
The Bay Park Square location didn’t even make it to closing. Sheldon Svenson of Pulaski was its last customer. He had arranged with Gordon Brothers, Shopko’s store liquidator, to buy everything left in the store, leaving it empty before 3 p.m.
His haul included bags of Easter basket grass, Easter eggs, electronics, some clothes and store fixtures, all of which he plans to sell through an online store.
“They did a very good job selling most of the inventory,” Svenson said. “A lot of the employees were probably sad to see it go. A lot would have liked to stay rather than have to find new jobs.”
In Wausau, some shoppers explored the back of the store, passing entirely deserted sections: home decor, sporting goods, luggage, school and office, pet supplies.
Back in the buzzing clothing sections, the brown-red carpet was littered with the leftovers of shoppers on the trail of a good bargain. Hangers, sale tags, flakes of trash and even some orange slime speckled the ground.
Checkout lines wound around the dollar sections where people continued to browse, hearing whispers from others who had already been in line for an hour and a half.
The empty shelves and dollar deals had become a familiar sight for Kelly Dehnel, who had visited the Wausau store five times since the liquidation sale began.
On Sunday she filled her cart with a $10 Dutch oven, $1 T-shirts, rugs, bedding, sandals and more.
Dehnel, who owns a dairy farm off County K northwest of Wausau, said the $1 T-shirts will be great to throw on and wear around the farm.
She used to shop Shopko regularly. Now that it’s closing, it’s “just another hole in Wausau,” she said.
‘It’s crazy it’s gone’
Jerrae DeLap of Fond du Lac had been a Shopko customer since the Fond du Lac store opened in the 1980s. It was where she purchased clothing for her children. After her children were grown, she returned for its products and garden center and came to know employees by name.
Standing near some of the last racks of clothing, she said she was going to miss the store — its closure took another shopping option from a city that has lost too many retailers in recent years. She now will turn to Target or out-of-town and online shopping to fill the void.
“I’m watching Fond du Lac lose these wonderful stores, and it’s making me very sad. It’s scary to find out all these stores are closing,” she said.
As dozens of people walked the carpeted and tiled floor of Shopko at noon Sunday in Wisconsin Rapids, they shopped quietly as the sounds of cart and clothing rack wheels filled the otherwise quiet store. Soft music echoed in the back of the store behind the caution tape that noted there was nothing left for customers beyond its barrier. A vacuum cleaner hummed in the back, and the self-checkouts’ computerized voices reminded the last-day customers to take their bags and receipts before they left.
A certain finality hovered in the air.
Mellissa Shilts, 28, said she and her family travel a lot to shop, so losing Shopko won’t hurt her a lot, but she wants to see something happen quickly with the soon-to-be-empty building.
“It’s crazy it’s gone,” Shilts said, and she hopes the building will be filled again soon.
Melissa Salm just wanted to do something nice for the employees at her neighborhood Shopko. She made her fourth visit of the weekend to the East Town Mall in Green Bay Sunday afternoon not to shop, but to deliver cookies, bottled water and McDonald’s gift cards for the employees.
“They’ve been working their butts (Saturday and Sunday),” Salm said. “It’s really sad. It’s the end of an era.”
Those who were working at the Appleton store on Sunday said they were there because they wanted to stay to the end.
Employee Pam Bartell, who wore a shirt that read “Shopko Strong until the very end,” helped close Menasha, then Kimberly and now Appleton. Her eyes grew red and teary when talking about her employer for 40 years.
“I feel there’s nothing I can do to be able to keep the store open,” she said. “It’s like a death. You have to mourn it, when you lose a job you absolutely love.”
Bankruptcy case continues
Sunday was Shopko’s last day in business, but there are still some significant issues left to watch as the bankruptcy case continues in federal court in Nebraska.
- Employee support fund: Almost 700 current and former employees signed a letter to Sun Capital Partners executives asking Shopko’s private-equity owners to establish a fund for employees affected by the bankruptcy.
- Optical transition: Shopko Optical will keep the name alive under new owner Monarch Alternative Capital LP. The firm has a busy summer and fall ahead moving about 80 optical centers out of the big boxes and into stand-alone storefronts.
- Wind down the estate: The U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge has approved the wind-down plan and final budget. Now, the company must execute it.
- Drug company’s legal claims: Shopko’s main pharmaceutical supplier, McKesson Corp., thinks Shopko executives and consultants made false statements to the company in order to keep Shopko pharmacies stocked with medications for as long as possible.
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