Sears Canada has lost a small fortune, sold off real estate, and it's now suddenly looking for a new partner for its credit card operations.
That has industry commentators talking about a deathwatch.
But the company is defiant, and assures customers that all is well.
On Sunday, the nation's biggest Santa Claus Parade in Toronto had a float featuring a "Wish Book," the Sears Christmas catalogue that children have pored over for more than six decades.
Will the next generation?
An ad starring comedian Mike Myers, whose brother has been a Sears Canada employee for 32 years, now has 1.3 million views on YouTube. "Is Sears Canada going away?" asks a worried-looking Myers. Brother Pete replies, "You of all people should know not to believe everything you read in the paper. We're not going anywhere."
The company’s vice-president of communications, Vincent Power, also had some bold words when asked about the future of Sears.
"Our financial health is quite fine actually, and would be the envy of many retailers," he told CBC News in a phone interview on Monday. "We have a lot of new initiatives at Sears Canada. We’re very much active and going strong."
That certainly wasn’t what people were talking about less than two weeks ago, when the company's American owner, Ed Lampert, announced that he’d be selling off hundreds of stores in the U.S. to launch a real estate investment trust. The chain will lease many of them back.
"It's one more sign in the inevitable demise of Sears," retail consultant Mark Satov said in an interview about Sears Canada that aired on CBC News Network. "They're [not] going to become a retailer that we visit — they're going to be a retailer we remember."
Brynn Winegard of Winegard & Company also used life-and-death language to express her view of what she deems to be mismanagement by Lampert. "He's put Sears in the coffin before the heart stops beating," says the Toronto-based consultant, who works with Canadian and American retail chains.
"He wouldn't do that if he understood how to make money from a legacy brand, from a company that is a household name. Those are not the brands you want to kill off."
The widespread view inside the industry is that as a hedge fund whiz and not an actual retailer, Lampert is simply squeezing as much cash out of the company as he can, both in the U.S. and Canada.
"The company in Canada has been treated like an ATM machine by its corporate owner," former Sears Canada CEO Mark Cohen told the Toronto Star in January. Cohen ran the company from 2001 to 2004 and is now a marketing professor at Columbia Business School.
New plan coming
Sears vice-president Power is quick to point out that the new American real estate investment trust will have "no impact at all" on Sears Canada. At this point, Canadian stores are not part of the plan. As for last year's sale of five leases in Canada for $400 million, Power says that was a strategy to unlock value for shareholders.
"The stores that we exited last year, that was not because we were in any kind of financial trouble," he says.
New acting CEO Ron Boire is the fourth chief executive Sears Canada has had in three years. He's talking up a new business plan that focuses on Kenmore appliances, Canada’s Best brand clothing, and Craftsman tools.
A new website will launch in the first quarter of 2015.
"Customers will have a much-improved online experience," Power says.
"That's smart," says consultant Brynn Winegard. "Sears should definitely head more into the virtual space. It requires less overhead, less working capital, and they'll be able to see more profit and maintain the brand."
But Satov isn't as optimistic.
"Sears could become Eatons. It's not going to be here," he says.
The starkly opposing views of the company's future prospects brings to mind the dark humour of Monty Python's famous “Bring Out Your Dead sketch, set during the time of London's great plague.
A man tries to convince a cart driver collecting the dead to take an old fellow who is loudly protesting that he's still alive. "He says he's not dead," says the driver. "Yes he is," claims the man, the old fellow slung over his shoulder.
"I'm not, I'm getting better," pipes up the old gent. "No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment."
"I feel fine! I think I'll go for a walk."
Close to 20,000 Sears Canada employees are surely hoping this story has a happier ending than the Monty Python sketch.