Mark Rheinschmidt was an employee when Sears closed its large store in the Southgate Mall in June and remembers hundreds of people coming in and saying they had been loyal customers for 30 years and were disappointed to see the retailer go.

Right away, he decided he wanted to do something to keep Sears operating in the Missoula market.

“As soon as they announced they were going to close (the mall) store, of course, they were going to offer up a Sears Hometown Store to somebody here in Missoula, and I was lucky enough to be the chosen candidate for that,” Rheinschmidt said. “(But) the process of getting open was a little slower than we thought.”

Finally, on Dec. 17, he opened a Sears Hometown Store inside the Abbey Carpet and Floor building at 407 S. Catlin St.

“We’re doing kind of an interim in-store format,” he said. “We talked to Curt Bowler, the owner of Abbey, and he let us use this space. We carved out this area and said, ‘Hey let’s remodel it and turn it into an appliance-only.’ ”

But that’s only Rheinschmidt’s short-term plan.

“The long-term goal is here in the next few years we’re hoping to have a full-line store here in Missoula and then we’ll have all the other products, so we’ll be just like Hamilton, Polson, Helena, Butte, Kalispell and Great Falls,” he said. “They’re all Hometown Stores, which is actually a separate entity than Sears Holdings Corp., which is what the mall store was. Sears Hometown Stores is separate and traded on Nasdaq separately. But the system itself is similar. And it’s owned locally, by me.”

Right now, the Missoula store only has appliances in its showroom, but Rheinschmidt stresses that he can get customers any Sears product – like its exclusive line of Kenmore appliances – online and shipped to their door in three to five business days.

“We can get anything you can find at Sears.com,” he said. “We are still tied with them as far as ordering parts, and our Craftsman tool exchange is a big deal. I can’t pull it off the shelf and give them that lifetime warranty tool and out the door they go – I have to order it and ship it to their home at no charge. As far as any other products though, we have the same availability as Sears Holdings has.”

He added that the Sears corporate headquarters was in agreement that the store needed to have a presence in the Missoula market so people don't have to travel to Hamilton to get service work done.

Rheinschmidt said that many of the larger, mall-based Sears locations around the country are closing, while the smaller Hometown Stores are booming. There are now about 1,172 in the country.

“Kenmore is the big thing,” he said. “Sears is Kenmore. Sears is Craftsman. And that’s where the loyalty comes in. That’s why we decided to open the store now instead of waiting to open a full-line store in maybe spring. We wanted to get in the market because the loyalty to Sears and the Kenmore and the Craftsman name is huge. Despite the size of the store, we have everything available that the big stores have.”

The Hometown Store has the same contracted delivery and installation workers that the old Sears store had.

Rheinschmidt said he doesn't mind the smaller location because he is still in the business he loves and knows well – he's been working in appliances for 25 years.

"It's cozy, I guess you could say," he said.

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