For decades, they not only defined our shopping habits, but our culture as well. Companies such as Woolworth and Montgomery Ward were iconic brands that at one time were a major force in the retail world. But these once mighty retailers all eventually fell on the sword of capitalism. Some failed to keep pace with increased competition, while others fell victim to poor management. In some cases, the retailers succumbed to new technologies and inevitable obsolescence. Here are 10 retailers that left an imprint in the American marketplace but have since faded into oblivion.
10. Hollywood Video (1988-2010)
The once red-hot video rental chain had roots in Wilsonville, Oregon, and later was purchased by smaller competitor Movie Gallery to block a hostile takeover by giant Blockbuster Video. While Hollywood Video stores continued operations a few years after the 2005 merger, the company fell into financial trouble because of increased competition from mail-delivery service Netflix and the convenient, cost-effective Redbox vending machines. In May 2010, Movie Gallery declared bankruptcy and shut down all Hollywood Video locations.
9. Builders Square (1984-1999)
During its 15-year run as a big-box home improvement store, Builders Square went head-to-head in much of the U.S. with Home Depot, Lowe’s and Menards. The San Antonio-based company boasted a presence in more than 30 states by the early 1990s. Builders Square featured a variety of famous pitchmen — including Tim Allen, at the time the star of the red-hot sitcom Home Improvement — but profits were never mighty. Parent company Kmart sold Builders Square in 1997 to the Hechinger Corp., which filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and shut down the entire Builders Square chain. Some stores were converted to other brands, including Home Depot. Today, the Builders Square name lives on as an online retailer.
8. Best Products (1957-1997)
It was difficult not to notice a Best Products store during the unorthodox company’s 40-year run. Many of the catalog company’s stores had highly unusual facades, appearing to still be under construction — even though they weren’t — or in a distressed condition. Customers browsed Best’s catalog showrooms for electronics, housewares, toys and sporting goods, but the merchandise had to be ordered from a warehouse. That business model seems woefully outdated now, but the Richmond, Virginia-based company was lauded in the 1980s by analysts for its efficiency. But a series of management missteps and changing consumer tastes landed the company in bankruptcy twice — first in 1991 and again in 1996. The latter resulted in the closing of all remaining stores.
7. Musicland (1955-2006)
This Minneapolis-based store evolved with technological changes throughout most of its life. When it began, records were all the rage, followed by cassettes and eventually compact discs. Musicland also evolved with the changing retail landscape and became a staple at malls across the country. But as the digital age emerged, Musicland and the other stores in the parent company’s portfolio — Sam Goody, Media Play and the Suncoast Motion Picture Company — struggled. Musicland Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and closed most of its stores. While Musicland stores ceased operations at this point, a few hundred stores continued under the Sam Goody name, after being purchased by Trans World Entertainment, parent company of the f.y.e. chain.
6. Linens ’n Things (1975-2008)
Similar to the more successful Bed, Bath & Beyond, this Clifton, New Jersey-based retailer sold a variety of home-furnishing products. At its peak, Linens ’n Things operated nearly 600 stores in 47 states and also had a strong presence throughout Canada. As financial difficulties emerged, the once-publicly traded company went private in 2006. After several rounds of store closures, Linens ’n Things shut down all its stores after the holiday shopping season in 2008. The brand name re-emerged a year later online, offering a similar selection of merchandise.
5. Circuit City (1949-2009)
The once mighty big-box consumer electronics chain, originally known as Wards, went head-to-head with Best Buy in many markets, selling stereos, personal computers, music, videos and home appliances. While Circuit City, based in Richmond, Virginia, never seemed to match Best Buy with prices, the company is credited with inventing the electronics superstore format that is prevalent today. The end came quite suddenly. In 2004, the chain posted $9.75 billion in sales and had more than 42,000 employees. By 2008, Circuit City had filed for bankruptcy and shut hundreds of stores, and by early 2009, the situation became very grim. A buyer was sought for the company within a one-week timeline. When no one stepped forward, the company was liquidated. The Circuit City name lives on today as an online retailer.
4. K.B Toys (1922-2009)
Once a staple in seemingly every shopping mall in America, children clamored to have mom and dad venture into the treasure trove of action figures, dolls, games, hand-held electronics and sporting goods. Based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, K.B Toys was founded by two brothers with the last name Kaufman, hence the initials. The retailer had humble beginnings but grew progressively as malls became a part of the American shopping experience. After the turn of the century, K.B Toys faced increasing competition from mega-retailers such as Walmart. Early in 2004, management began a round of store closures after declaring bankruptcy. K.B managed to hang on a few more years, but in early 2009, the gates went down on several hundred stores. Toys “R” Us — a much larger, formidable opponent to K.B Toys — purchased all of the company’s intellectual property rights later that year.
3. Borders Books and Music (1971-2011)
This chain operated more than 1,000 American stores and had locations around the world at the height of its popularity. Founders Tom and Louis Borders began the company as a small store in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a limited selection of used books. But a series of acquisitions — and the eventual purchase by Kmart — helped the company grow well into the 1990s. Even in the years immediately leading up to Borders’ dissolution, company management attempted to remain competitive. Case in point: digital centers — featuring MP3 players, Sony Reader equipment and digital photo frames — were unveiled at select locations in 2008. But after 2006, Borders began bleeding red ink amid the credit crunch and as consumers cut spending. In February 2011, the company entered bankruptcy and announced a round of store closings. A second — and final — round of closings took place that summer. Today, the Borders website redirects to former competitor Barnes & Noble.
2. Montgomery Ward (1872-2001)
Started as a mail-order business by Aaron Montgomery Ward, this venerable retailer seemed unstoppable as it served generation after generation of consumers. Ward is credited with founding the dry-goods mail-order business — deemed revolutionary at the time. The company complimented its successful catalog operation with department stores, the first opening in 1926 in Plymouth, Indiana. More stores sprouted in the ensuing years, including a flagship store in downtown Chicago. Troubles began in the 1950s when management failed to adapt to a growing retail trend, as competitors relocated from downtown locations to suburban shopping malls. Eventually, Montgomery Ward stores migrated to malls and new owner Mobil pumped significant cash into the company in 1976. The venerable retailer continued tweaking its format for several decades with remodeled stores, an updated selection of merchandise and the closure of its legacy catalog business in 1985. Financial problems, including bankruptcy, struck in the mid-1990s. A last-ditch effort to remain competitive took place in 1999 with a fresh update to all remaining stores and a rechristened name, Wards. After a disappointing holiday shopping season in late 2000, management decided to close the remaining 250 stores. In 2004, Direct Marketing Services purchased the rights to the Montgomery Ward name and began offering merchandise as an online retailer.
1. Woolworth (1879-1997)
Founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the F.W. Woolworth Co. for more than a century defined the discount five-and-dime format. From the beginning, Frank Winfield Woolworth and other executives built the company by undercutting competition and offering merchandise at fixed prices. The company grew quickly and headquartered in 1913 at the famed Woolworth Building in Manhattan. Woolworth stores — complete with lunch counters — became a fixture in communities throughout America. Starting in the 1950s, Woolworth followed the suburban sprawl, occupying numerous enclosed malls and strip shopping centers. Some analysts attribute Woolworth’s decline to its expansion efforts. In addition to the popular flagship operation, the F.W. Woolworth Co. operated a discount department store chain, Woolco, and other specialty shops, including Foot Locker. The parent company never went bankrupt, but started closing Woolworth stores by the 1990s. In 1997, management made the decision to close the remaining Woolworth stores and change the parent company’s name to Venator.