Sunday’s abrupt closing of the Lowe’s home improvement stores in Biddeford and Ellsworth is the latest example of a national retailer pulling the plug on underperforming outlets in small markets, real estate professionals said Monday.

The two stores were anchor tenants in and around so-called power centers, part of a wave of big-box retail development that washed across Maine just before the economic collapse in 2008. Both were near Home Depot stores.

Lowe’s may have been hit especially hard by the ongoing malaise in housing and construction, commercial brokers said. They noted that the big retailers anchoring power centers in Maine’s smaller markets, such as North Windham, Augusta and Waterville, also may be under pressure.

“In hindsight, maybe some (stores) shouldn’t have been built,” said Drew Sigfridson, a broker for CB Richard Ellis/The Boulos Co.

Lowe’s announced Monday that it’s closing 20 underperforming stores in 15 states, putting 1,950 people out of work. The workers will receive pay and benefits for 60 to 90 days, according to Lowe’s.

A total of 101 workers lost their jobs at the Biddeford store, said city officials, who have asked laid-off workers to contact the mayor’s office for help connecting to assistance. A meeting at City Hall is being planned for later this week.

Customers who arrived at Lowe’s in Biddeford early Monday were surprised to find the store closed.

“I am stunned,” said Maynard Lind. “I come here once or twice a week. My wife was here yesterday.”
Richard DesRoberts of DesRoberts Construction LLC said the store always seemed more crowded than the nearby Home Depot.

“I was here to pick up a water heater. I guess that’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s a shocker.”
In a telephone recording, Lowe’s is advising customers to contact its Scarborough store or its Sanford store for deliveries or orders.

The Lowe’s in Biddeford operated at The Shops at Biddeford Crossing, a 520,000-square-foot center that opened in 2007. The $50 million project includes Staples, Target and Best Buy. Another key tenant, Old Navy, has left.

Lowe’s was along a stretch of Route 111 that includes Kohl’s and a Walmart Supercenter. It came into a market with a Home Depot store that has better visibility and an established customer base, Sigfridson said. The situation is similar in Ellsworth and North Windham.

“In some of these markets, it was probably tight for The Home Depot to be profitable,” he said. “But bring in a second store, and it’s unsustainable.”

Sigfridson said North Windham may be in better shape because it’s farther from the shopping centers in Portland. That makes it a destination for shoppers in its region.

Biddeford doesn’t have that relative isolation.

A fact sheet from the developer, New England Development of Newton, Mass., says The Shops at Biddeford Crossing draws from 56,433 households within 10 miles.

But Sigfridson noted that Biddeford isn’t much farther from the Maine Mall, where the same retailers and many more are clustered.

“I was scratching my head initially,” said Charles Craig, a broker for NAI/The Dunham Group. “I didn’t think the market was large enough to support Lowe’s.”

A spokesperson for New England Development didn’t respond to a phone call or email.

Craig and Sigfridson raised questions about whether the other major retailers along the Biddeford strip can survive in the current economy. They noted the strong competition among Kohl’s, Target and Walmart.

Craig said the challenge now for the Biddeford Crossing developer and Biddeford officials is to fill 165,000 square feet of vacant retail space.

“Who’s going to take that big of a box?” he asked.

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]