Mervyns' days are few

After almost five decades in business, the end is nearing for the Valley's Mervyns stores.

Many are expected to close in the coming days.

The 70% to 80% off signs are up. Merchandise is clustered in the front of the stores, surrounded by bare walls and empty space. And many shoppers expressed a twinge of sadness at losing a store they said was a central San Joaquin Valley mainstay.

Although retailers like Kohl's and J.C. Penney -- and perhaps Gottschalks -- are expected to pick up the customers, the future of the more than 700 Valley Mervyns employees and the buildings themselves is less clear.

Long lines formed at some of the stores earlier this week as customers snapped up bargains.

Teresa Conway and her granddaughter Kayla loaded bags stuffed with clothes into their trunk at a Fresno store.

"Everybody got a full wardrobe," Teresa Conway said, referring to about a dozen children, spouses and grandchildren. Their finds included $40 mens' Van Heusen dress shirts on sale for $11 and $35 jeans marked down to $12.

Kayla Conway was sad to see Mervyns close.

"I really liked the store a lot," she said. Mervyns had "cheap clothes, but they were good."

All 149 Mervyns stores are closing, including eight in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Professional liquidators are handling the final sales. The Mervyns liquidator could not be reached for comment, and Mervyns executives did not return messages.

Patrick Mon Pere Sr., president and chief executive of the Fresno-based Patrick James clothing stores, who also runs liquidation business Patrick James Promotions, said liquidators know how to move merchandise and specialize in going-out-of-business sales. He is not handling the Mervyns liquidations.

Typically, the liquidator determines how much prices will be cut, works with staff to create roomier aisles to handle increased foot traffic and helps the retailer advertise the sale, Mon Pere said.

Everything is for sale, including office furniture and shelves. The Clovis Mervyns was selling four-drawer file cabinets for $75 and small clear plastic price sign holders for a buck.

"That, believe me, is an art form in itself," Mon Pere said. "To be able to sell out 98% of your inventory in a store is quite difficult."

Although the Mervyns stores have signs outside stating how many days customers have left to save, managers were reluctant to talk about what would be their final closing day.

The doors typically close when it costs more to run the sale than the sale brings in, Mon Pere said. The remaining merchandise is sold to dealers who find other buyers, either at stores or auctions, he said.

Other retailers will pick up the customers when Mervyns finally closes its doors.

Steve Geil, president of the Economic Development Corp. serving Fresno County, said it's an opportunity for independent retailers to market themselves to former Mervyns customers.

Other experts said many shoppers will turn to J.C. Penney and Kohl's.

Kohl's offers a similar concept to Mervyns with similar pricing, said Jeff Green of Mill Valley-based Jeff Green Partners, a retail feasibility consultant.

But Kohl's has the added edge of carrying discount designer lines like the Simply Vera clothes created by designer Vera Wang, said Karla Martin, a vice president in the San Francisco office of Booz & Company, a management consulting firm.

Martin said that although Fresno-based Gottschalks won't see a huge boom in business from Mervyns closing, it could potentially snag customers looking for basics like Levi's, underwear, T-shirts and quality kids clothes.

Gottschalks already has increased its advertising in some markets to lure those customers, CEO Jim Famalette said earlier this month.

Said Martin: "If they can manage to get their inventory levels right and stay afloat, I think they [Gottschalks] are poised to take a share that would have gone to Mervyns."

The lure of Kohl's also contributed to Mervyns' closure, Green said.

Mervyns faced other issues as well, including the economy.

Officials also blamed a private equity group that bought Mervyns, separating it from sister store Target in 2004. The investment group bought the retailer, acquired its real estate and leased it back to the company at substantially increased rates, which Mervyns attorneys said led to its bankruptcy.

The future of the Mervyns buildings in the Valley remains to be seen. Women's clothing retailers Forever 21 and Kohl's submitted a joint bid to the bankruptcy court to take over 46 Mervyns leases, but none are in the central San Joaquin Valley.

And the future of more than 700 employees between Madera and Porterville -- 240 in Fresno alone, according to the state filings -- also is unclear.

About 70% to 80% of the jobs at Mervyns stores are part time, said Adam Peck, executive director of the Tulare County Workforce Investment Board. Part-time workers who are students or who provide discretionary income to their families may not be as hard hit as full-timers, he said.

The board expects to see Mervyns workers looking for job services at its offices after the stores close, said business program coordinator Sandi Miller.

The organization sent staff to the Tulare County stores to teach workers about unemployment benefits and other basics, and give them paperwork to enroll in job and training services.

Full-time workers who want to stay in retail may have a hard time finding a new job, said Steven Gutierrez, a labor market analyst in Fresno.

"It's probably going to be a while before something pops up in that type of field in the retail sector," he said. "Everything is taking a hit."