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|Associated Press Release for December 28, 2000|
CHICAGO, December 28, 2000 -- Retailer Montgomery Ward Inc. is shutting down after more than 125 years in business and numerous attempts to entice shoppers back to its struggling stores, employees said Thursday.
Wards spokesman Chuck Knittle declined to comment but said the company planned to make an announcement later in the day.
Dozens of employees were seen leaving the company's headquarters with boxes in hand Thursday. Several said they had been told at a meeting that General Electric Co.'s GE Capital Unit, owner of the 250-store retailer, was pulling financial support from Ward in the wake of sluggish holiday sales.
"I'm just devastated," Anece Rich, a 28-year Wards employee who worked in the company's mail room, said as she left Wards headquarters. "They took care of us as best they could."
Earlier in the day, Crain's Chicago Business reported that the company planned to announce "widespread" closures. WBBM Radio also reported that Wards has stopped accepting orders at its distributions centers.
Retail analysts also said they had heard the end of the company was near.
"It's sad. It's too bad because a lot of effort has gone into trying to save the thing," said Sid Doolittle, a Chicago-based retail consultant who spent 28 years as a Wards executive.
Begun in 1872, Wards pioneered mail-order catalogs when it came out with a single sheet of dry-goods items for sale. It was the first U.S. mail-order house to sell general merchandise. Sears, Roebuck & Co. wasn't founded until 1886 and didn't put out its first general merchandise catalog until a decade after that.
Ward, known affectionately to its customers as "Monkey" Ward, opened its first store in Plymouth, Indiana, in 1926.
Wards, whose stores employ about 37,000 in 31 states, has been financially unstable for years.
Hope had been rekindled in August 1999 when the company emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, announcing a plan to revamp many of its stores.
But some analysts said it was too little too late.
"Wards has not established themselves as anything distinctive in the marketplace," said George Whalin, president of California-based Retail Management Consultants. "There's just no reason to go there - unless maybe they're the closest store to your house."
Whalin said it had become increasingly difficult for Wards to survive in a retail market swamped with competitors - everything from Home Depot to Best Buy and Target.
News of Wards' apparent demise comes two days after Massachusetts-based discount retailer Bradlees Inc. announced that it is going out of business.
"It's brutal. It's as competitive as anything out there," Whalin said.
Wards had been shooting for sales growth this year of about 9 percent. Instead, it hovered at a sluggish 2 percent.
"It's like leaving part of your life behind. My heart's breaking, but I'm going to go and look for another job, because that's all you can do," Sharon Bray, a 35-year employee who worked in systems quality assurance, told WBBM.
She held out little hope that anything would save her job.
"No more Wards, not unless someone jumps in and buys us," she said.