It has been ugly on Wall Street lately. Investors are spooked, consumers have prepared for the worst and businesses remain defensive. The Greek debt debacle is stealing recent headlines, but don’t fool yourself — persistent problems of high joblessness, a battered housing market and huge losses at financial firms continue to take a toll on the entire global economy.
While the big picture still is unfolding, there are a few stories for particular players that are rapidly approaching an unfortunate end. Victims of both the general downturn and of specific troubles related to their businesses, these iconic American brands are about to disappear.
We’ve already seen some retail big names go under in the past few years — Linens ‘n Things, Circuit City, Borders — but these aren’t exactly huge brand names. They are, after all, simply merchants who sell products from third parties.
But this latest wave of looming failures could be different because it will mean the end of some of the biggest American brands in history.
Here are those three iconic companies on the brink:
Eastman Kodak (NYSE:EK) saw its stock step off a cliff recently thanks to news that it was scrambling for cash just for “general business purposes.” Not a good sign when you need to ask for a loan just to keep the lights on.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Kodak has failed to transition into the digital photography age. A decade ago, Interbrand ranked Kodak as the 16th most valuable brand in the world, worth $14.8 billion — but every year since, the Kodak brand has fallen in both rank and value as consumers continue to identify it as an anachronism akin to rotary dial telephones and VHS tapes. The numbers at Kodak have been brutal as legacy film sales evaporate and its branded digital cameras and printers can’t fill the gap fast enough.
Its “best” year in recent memory was 2008, where it managed to post one good quarter and squeak out a full-year profit. Throw in a tough consumer spending environment, and Kodak seems destined to go to zero soon. That’s a sad fate for a company that once was synonymous with shutterbugs nationwide, but let’s be realistic. America’s “Kodak moment” seems to have come and gone — forever.
American Airlines parent AMR Corp. (NYSE:AMR) already was having a bad year before losing 33% on Monday thanks to bankruptcy fears. And while many airlines have struggled in the past and a handful have successfully emerged stronger from bankruptcy, it’s difficult to imagine American Airlines will survive. The fundamental reduction in demand for seats is the biggest weight on AMR’s bottom line, and a bankruptcy work-out of high debt levels and high labor costs doesn’t change a thing.
Competing airlines have been having a rough go of it, too, but at least have consolidated and strengthened their share of the airline market to minimize damage. Take newly merged United Continental (NYSE:UAL), which was meant to marry two companies that eventually would have disappeared independently. No, it’s difficult to believe there is life after bankruptcy for AMR in this market — unless you count a sale to a rival as other major carriers struggle to be the last fish in the pond that gets eaten. It all means that 80-year-old carrier American could be grounded permanently.
OK, Sears Holding (NASDAQ:SHLD) is a retailer like those I mentioned earlier. But it’s not the same at all. It has flagship brands of its own — including Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances and Land’s End clothing — that have big weight with consumers. And heck, Sears was the low-tech role model of Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) with its robust shopping catalog that dates back to 1888.
But despite its iconic status and rich history, Sears is in it deep right now. Revenue has slid every year since 2008. To make matters worse, Sears Holdings was created by a merger of Sears and Kmart, and the operation has been a disaster as management tries to get a handle on the 4,000 total stores. (Read a full and painful list here of the ways Sears has failed to reinvent itself recently.) The company has had only three profitable quarters in the past two fiscal years, and it is slated to be in the black just once in fiscal 2012 for an ugly $1.50-per-share loss. And that’s if all goes according to plan. Same-store sales in the first quarter were off more than 5% for Sears, so it could be time for this iconic American catalog company to consider mailing it in.