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Jax Daily Record Monday, Oct. 26, 202005:00 AM EST

Stein Mart: The end is here for a store that began more than a century ago

The Jacksonville-based company succumbed to changing retail trends and COVID-19.
by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The family legacy in retail that would lead to Stein Mart took root in 1908 when Sam Stein, a Russian immigrant, opened a general merchandise store in Greenville, Mississippi, a small town in the state’s delta region.

It died Aug. 12 when the discount fashion retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and began liquidation sales at its nearly 300 stores in 30 states.

Changing shopping patterns, sales declines and COVID-19 all contributed to the death.

When Sam Stein retired in 1932, his son, Jake, took over the family business. The second generation shifted the focus to discount clothing and opened the first Stein Mart department store in 1964.

Sam’s grandson, Jay Stein, became CEO in 1977.

That’s also when the business grew beyond Mississippi and began its national expansion. The second Stein Mart opened in 1978 in Memphis and the third in 1980 in Nashville.

Jay Stein served as chairman from 1989 until June 2020. Under his leadership, the company’s business model catered primarily to fashion-conscious women who wanted to wear upscale and designer label clothing, but didn’t want to pay full price in full-line department stores.

The first Stein Mart in Jacksonville opened in 1983. A year later, Stein moved the corporate headquarters from Mississippi to Jacksonville.

By 1990, the chain grew to 40 stores. In 1992 there were 45 Stein Marts and the company made its stock available to the public.

The stock, listed as SMRT, opened at $4.33, traded for twice that within 16 months and in February 2015, it was selling for more than $16 a share.

There were 123 Stein Marts in 1996 and more than 260 by 2013.

The business started slipping when consumer shopping trends changed, such as the move from browsing at brick-and-mortar stores toward online retail.

In 2017, Stein Mart fired 10% of its corporate staff and reduced the inventory in its stores in an effort to stabilize the business.

The company continued to struggle and began 2020 by announcing Stein Mart’s board agreed to a buyout by a private equity firm.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown began in mid-March. That forced the closing of all 281 Stein Marts and the furlough of most of its 8,600 store employees and about half of the 375-member corporate staff in the Stein Mart building on the Southbank Downtown.

On April 16, the buyout was called off by mutual agreement amid the unpredictable economic conditions caused by the pandemic.

Stores began reopening in late April, but a COVID resurgence in June hit Sunbelt states particularly hard, where most of Stein Mart’s stores were located.

Stein Mart filed for bankruptcy in August and began closing its stores.

The date for each store’s closure is determined by when the store liquidates its inventory. All are expected to be vacated by the end of the year, according to the company’s website.

Stein Mart stores in Jacksonville began turning off the lights and locking the doors this past weekend. 

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