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BLOOMINGTON — As Bergner's and other Bon-Ton Stores begin their liquidation sales, employment and economic development officials say that retail stores are adapting.

As of Friday, liquidation sales were underway at all Bon-Ton stores, including Bergner's stores in Bloomington's Eastland Mall and at Hickory Point Mall in Forsyth.

The liquidation sales are expected to last about 10 to 12 weeks, although that will vary from store to store, the parent company announced.

Shoppers can still make purchases through websites. However, store credit cards can no longer be used either online or in the stores, according to the company website.

Store merchandise credits will only be honored for a period of 10 days, following the first day of store-closing sales. Merchandise returns also must be made within the 10-day period. After that, all sales will be considered final.

Amy Millett of Carlock, who was at the Eastland Mall store Thursday to return items she previously purchased, said, “I'm sad and discouraged and a little upset because there was such short notice.”

Zach Dietmeier, director of marketing and communications for the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, said, “It's hard to project what the impact will be” on the local job market. 

Preliminary figures show 9,400 people were employed in the retail sector in McLean County in March, down about 200 from a year ago.

Those figures don't reflect jobs that will be lost from the two retailers that will be closing soon in Bloomington-Normal — Bergner's and Toys R Us — but they do include the more recent closings of other retailers such as J.C. Penney.

Company officials have not disclosed how many people will lose their jobs at the Bergner's stores.

“The trend has been steady, within a few hundred jobs, for the last 10 years,” said Dietmeier, who speculated that the impact of store closings has been muted by increased hiring among remaining retailers who are focusing more on customer service in response to the growth in online shopping.

Statewide, employment in the retail trade dropped 3 percent from 2016 to 2018 while non-farm employment overall grew 1.2 percent, comparing January to January in each year, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. 

“I don't think that (the decline in retail employment) is too surprising given the growth in online sales,” said IDES director Jeff Mays.

It is a national trend affecting more than just Illinois, he noted, and he doesn't know what businesses can “do to stem the tide.”

However, although “the retail sector is going through a major change,” just as manufacturing and agribusiness have gone through transitions, Mays said, “The folks in retail are the most adaptable, innovative folks there are.”

Another Bloomington Bergner's shopper, Carla Klein of Ancona, whose daughter lives in Bloomington, said the news that Bergner's is closing was upsetting.

“This is one of my favorite places to shop,” she said, citing the quality of the merchandise and the variety, from dresses to athletic wear.

Millett said, “I don't enjoy the online shopping that I feel we're heading toward.”

But Mays doesn't think online shopping will kill all retail stores.

“You're still going to have a retail trade. You are still going to have a Main Street, but it's going to look different,” he said.

Mays said some who lose their jobs when the stores close might be able to find jobs at other retailers. Others might have to develop other skills and interests, he said.

“We as a state are there to help them retool,” said Mays. “It difficult no matter how you try to soften it.”

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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