Big chains are closing stores left and right. Once bustling malls are ghost towns. Shopping online is now the norm. There’s no doubt there’ve been some big changes to the retail landscape in the past few years. Some chains are changing to compete in a new environment, where it’s increasingly easy to get everything you need with a simple click. Other stores are on their last legs. Either way, it’s enough to have you longing for the way things used to be.
These photos show what some of America’s favorite retailers looked like back in the day, and what they look like now. Check out page 13 to see which store some have called the Amazon of its time.
Toys R Us: Then
It wasn’t that long ago that long lines like the one seen above were the norm at Toys R Us. Shoppers flocked to the biggest toy store chain in the U.S. to get the latest must-have toys for their kids, especially on big shopping days like Black Friday.
Toys R Us had its roots in America’s postwar economic expansion. Founder Charles Lazarus opened his first store, called Children’s Bargain Town, in 1948, at the dawn of the baby boom. By 1957 he’d created the first major toy store chain in the U.S. Parents and kids couldn’t get enough.
Next: The end of an era.
Toys R Us: Now
At one point, Toys R Us controlled 25% of the U.S. toy market, but change was on the horizon. By 1998, Walmart was selling more toys than Toys R Us. Then came Amazon. Combine those low-price competitors with mismanagement and a failure to innovate, and you have a looming disaster. In 2018, Toys R Us announced it would close all of its remaining 735 U.S. stores.
Next: The beginnings of a retail empire.
Sam Walton got his start in retail back in 1945, when he opened a Walton’s dime store under the Ben Franklin brand in Bentonville, Arkansas. But Walton would be barely a footnote in history if he hadn’t had the idea that he could be successful by selling discounted goods in small towns. His Ben Franklin backers didn’t agree, so Walton struck out on his own.
He opened the first Walmart store on July 2, 1962, in Rogers, Arkansas. In his autobiography, he described that first store as “truly ugly,” but shoppers didn’t care when prices were so low.
Next: Walmart becomes the No. 1 retailer in America.
Walton’s instincts about Americans desire for cheap goods was spot on. By 1968, he’d opened the first Walmart stores outside of Arkansas. In 1969, the company went public, and by the early 1970s, it was gobbling up smaller chains. In 1980, there were 276 Walmart stores, and in the early 1990s, it opened its first international stores. Today, Walmart is the No. 1 retailer in America.
Next: This discount grocery store has its roots in Germany.
Americans have been flocking to Aldi since 1976, when the German discount grocer opened its first U.S. store, in Iowa. But its roots go much further back than that.
This photo shows the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop in Essen, Germany, in 1930. Karl and Theo’s mother started the store way back in 1913. Eventually, the brothers took over the business and expanded it to a chain of hundreds of stores. In the mid-1960s, the brothers split the business in two: Aldi Süd and Aldi Nord.
Next: The original German Aldi spawned two popular American chains.
Aldi Süd eventually expanded to the U.S., opening its no-frills grocery stores (you even have to pay a quarter to rent a cart) around the country. Today, it has 1,600 stores in 35 states and is one of the most-loved supermarket chains in America.
And what about Aldi Nord? That half of the business has been just as successful. It operates in the U.S. as Trader Joe’s.
Next: This chain brought organic foods to millions of Americans.
Whole Foods: Then
Before it earned the nickname “Whole Paycheck,” Whole Foods was just a supermarket dedicating to selling natural foods – a pretty innovative concept at the time. College dropout John Mackey and three partners opened the first Whole Foods Market in 1980 in Austin, Texas. It almost went out of business a year later after a devastating flood. But by 1984 the chain was on an expansion kick, opening stores in other U.S. cities. By the 1990s, they were buying up other chains that sold natural and organic foods.
Next: Whole Foods sells out.
Whole Foods: Now
By the 2000s, Whole Foods was the dominant natural foods chain in America. But high prices were causing sales to slip. In 2017, online retail giant Amazon bought the chain for $13.4 billion. They quickly moved to make changes, like selling Amazon products in stores, offering free delivery to Prime members, and centralizing the product buying system, which critics say is leading to fewer local and regional products in stores.
Next: This company is the oldest in North America.
Hudson’s Bay Company: Then
Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest company on this list by a mile. The business goes all the way back to 1670, when it got its start as a fur trading business. In fact, it’s the oldest company in North America.
Hudson’s Bay was still buying furs from trappers as late as the 1940s, as seen in the photo above. But these days, it mostly owns and operates department stores in Canada, the U.S., Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.
Next: Hudson’s Bay is still one of Canada’s most beloved stores.
Hudson’s Bay Company: Now
Today, the Hudson’s Bay Company operates more than 480 stores around the world and has approximately 65,000 employees. In addition to the Hudson’s Bay chain of department stores, which operate in Canada, it also owns Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. Like many department stores, Hudson’s Bay Company has faced challenges recently. In 2018, it announced it would close 10 Lord & Taylor stores, including the chain’s flagship Manhattan store.
Next: This chain would probably like to rewind to better days.
Back in the 1990s, commercials urged Americans to “make it a Blockbuster night,” and millions obliged. That was before Netflix and Redbox, back when the movie rental chain was at the top of its game.
By 2004, Blockbuster had pretty much obliterated the competition and had 9,000 locations around the world. But the curtain was about to drop on the chain, which was fatally unprepared for the big changes coming in how people watched movies.
Next: Here’s what a Blockbuster looks like in 2018. (Yes, they’re still around.)
The end came swiftly for Blockbuster. By 2013, when it announced it would close the vast majority of its retail stores, there were only 300 locations left in the U.S. But a handful of Blockbuster locations hung on against the odds, mostly in Alaska, where slow and expensive Internet meant streaming wasn’t an option for many people.
In 2018, the last two Blockbusters in Alaska said they would close, leaving just one lonely Blockbuster store standing in Bend, Oregon. We think it’s only a matter of time before the final credits roll for this formerly ubiquitous chain.
Next: This chain was the Amazon of its day.
It’s hard to imagine now, but 100 years ago, Sears was basically the Amazon of its day. The massive mail order company had transformed the way people obtained goods, offering a vast variety of products for affordable prices. (You could even by a ready-to-assemble house from the store’s catalog.) Then, in the 1920s, it decided to get into brick-and-mortar retail, opening up new retail stores to lure in suburban shoppers. For a while, it worked beautifully.
Next: What went wrong for Sears? Everything.
Sears’ retail dominance started to slip in 1991, when Walmart eclipsed it as America’s largest retailer. While it’s still a household name, it’s had a rough go over the past three decades. A 2005 merger with another struggling chain Kmart, didn’t solve its problems. It sold off well-known brands like Kenmore and Craftsman, failed to update its stores to appeal to shoppers, and didn’t adapt to the online environment.
By 2017, the company admitted that “substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” In 2018, it said it would close another 78 Sears and Kmart stores, on top of the more than 500 that were shuttered over the previous 15 months.
Next: A Midwest department store chain.
Herberger’s was once the kind of department store chain that thrived in communities around the United States. It started in Minnesota in 1927. Eventually, it expanded throughout the state and the Midwest before being acquired by Proffitt’s, which owned various department store chains across the country. Later, it was sold to Bon-Ton Stores.
Next: What went wrong for Herberger’s?
Things didn’t go well for Herberger’s or the other stores in the Bon-Ton family, which included Carson’s, Boston Store, Bergner’s, and Younkers. After years of poor performance, the company announced in 2018 that it would close all of its 200-plus stores, including all Herberger’s locations.
Next: A destination for music fans.
Tower Records: Then
Remember when you had to actually go to a store to buy music? If you do, chances are you remember shopping at Tower Records, one of the biggest record store chains in the U.S. The first location opened in Sacramento, California, in 1960. Over the years, it expanded to 89 locations around the country. Those stores became a place for music fans to gather and get their hands on the latest records.
Next: Death by digital download.
Tower Records: Now
The advent of easily available digital downloads and online piracy was disastrous for Tower Records. By 2004 the chain, which had also taken on millions of debt to cover an ill-timed expansion, was bankrupt. Its last U.S. location closed in 2006. But the store lives on in Japan, where there are still more than 85 locations.
Next: The go-to place for gadgets, for a time.
Radio Shack was on the cutting edge back in 1921, when it was founded by two Boston brothers who wanted to sell ham radio supplies and equipment. By the 1940s, it was selling speakers and other audio equipment. It gradually added products like electronic calculators and computers to its stores as it became the go-to store for all your gadgety needs. But big changes were coming to electronics retailing, and that didn’t bode well for Radio Shack.
Next: RadioShack is a shell of its former self.
For years, RadioShack was riding high. But sometime in the 1990s, it lost its way. While it was early out of the gate in the computer business, it lost its lead to companies like IBM and Dell. Meanwhile, big box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City were offering stiff competition. The company has closed at least 1,000 stores and filed for bankruptcy twice in recent years. Somehow, it’s still limping along, but the future doesn’t look good.
Next: A Florida grocery chain that went national.
George Jenkins already owned two food stores in Florida when he opened the first Publix Super Market in 1940. With amenities like air conditioning, electric doors, and in-store flower shops, it joined the ranks of a growing number of supermarket chains that were revolutionizing the way Americans shopped for food. The chain expanded quickly throughout Florida through the 1950s and 1960s.
Next: People still love Publix.
In the 1990s, Publix began to expand outside of Florida, to states like Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Today, it’s the largest employee-owned supermarket chain in the U.S. with nearly 1,200 locations and 190,000 employees. And its customers are fiercely loyal. Publix came out on top of the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s 2018 list of favorite retailers, beating out stores like Costco and Trader Joe’s.
Next: This store brags that it’s like no other place in the world.
The first Bloomingdale’s opened in New York City in 1872, and it specialized in selling women’s clothing. During this era, department stores were taking off, and by 1929, the store took up an entire Manhattan block. It had also acquired its signature Art Deco styling and had earned a reputation as the place to find fashionable, imported goods. And like other department stores at the time, it wasn’t just a place to shop. Customers could take a break from browsing by sitting down for coffee or a sandwich in the restaurant, pictured above.
Next: Weathering the retail storm.
Though department stores around the U.S. are struggling, Bloomingdale’s doesn’t seem to have been hurt as much by shifts in American shopping habits. Parent company Macy’s has been closing stores right and left, but Bloomingdale’s – which has 38 U.S. stores – has largely been spared, though a few locations have closed in recent years. The exterior of the chain’s flagship store in Manhattan looks much like it did back in the 1930s.
Next: This department store chain used to be cash only.
J.C. Penney: Then
Unlike Bloomingdale’s, which targeted well-off shoppers looking for high-end goods, J.C. Penney grew into a dominant department store chain by opening stores in Western frontier towns. The first store opened in 1902 in Kemmerer, Wyoming; by 1928, there were 1,000 locations. It expanded quickly and for years it had a strict cash-only policy, which only ended in 1958.
Next: The end of an era?
J.C. Penney: Now
By the mid-1960s, J.C. Penney had begun to operate more of its stores in suburban shopping malls. But like other department stores, Penney’s was hit hard by the slump in mall traffic. The company closed more than 100 underperforming stores in 2017, and another eight were shuttered in 2018. Customers are fleeing the stores and turnaround efforts have fallen flat. Now, experts are questioning whether it can survive.
Next: This mall store started out selling hunting gear.
Abercrombie & Fitch: Then
You might know it as store for teens, but Abercrombie & Fitch (and its famous catalog) got its start back in 1892 selling camping, fishing, and hunting gear. In 1909, it put out its first catalog, a 450-page book highlighting the latest in outdoor fashions for well-off people looking to escape the stress of the city. Customers included luminaries like Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart.
Next: A transformation into a mall powerhouse.
Abercrombie & Fitch: Now
Abercrombie & Fitch stayed true to its roots as an outdoor and sporting retailer until the late 1980s, when it was acquired by Limited Brands. Then, the company transformed into a store for preppy, popular high schoolers. The shift worked like a charm, at least for a time, but the store’s sexy image took a beating in the early 2000s, with controversies over hiring and comments from the CEO admitting the brand was “exclusionary.” Recently, A&F has been working to rebrand itself to older shoppers.
Next: This chain hit the bullseye with its discount store concept.
In 1960, the owners of Dayton’s a Minnesota-based department store chain, decided to expand into discount retailing. The first Target store opened in Roseville, Minnesota, in 1962 – the same year the first Walmart opened. Even then, stores had the red-and-white color scheme and bullseye logo still used today. The concept was a hit. By the 1970s, the store had eclipsed Dayton’s stores in revenue; at the end of the decade, there were 74 Target stores in 11 states.
Next: People still love Target.
Target continued to expand throughout the U.S. in the 1980 and 1990s. Though it’s not as big as its major competitor Walmart, it’s captured customers by offering more stylish merchandise and a more pleasant in-store shopping experience. The chain is also opening new, smaller stores near colleges and in urban areas to better reach shoppers.
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