Customers planning to get their pictures taken or pick up photos at their local Sears or Walmart stores walked Thursday morning into empty portrait studios.
St. Louis-based CPI Corp., the operator of those studios, had abruptly pulled the plug on its U.S. operations the night before.
Word of the studios’ demise began to spread to thousands of employees late Wednesday through phone calls — and sometimes text messages — in which they were told not to report to work the next morning.
CPI, which had about 2,700 portrait studios inside of Sears, Walmart and Babies R Us, had been struggling to stay afloat in recent months after defaulting with its lenders.
The company had blamed some of its woes on the economy, ineffective promotions, and the rise in digital and mobile photography, which has made everyone into “do-it-yourself” amateur photographers.
But on Thursday, CPI remained tight-lipped about its situation and did not respond to several requests for comment. Hours after the studios had shut down, CPI finally acknowledged the fact on its website, which was changed midday to a blank white screen with two paragraphs of text on it.
“After many years of providing family portrait photography, we are sad to announce that all of our U.S. portrait studios are now closed,” the website said. “We appreciate your patronage and allowing us to capture your precious memories.”
It added that the company was attempting to fulfill as many customer orders as possible. Portraits from recent sessions “may” be available at the studio, the company said. It then directed customers to the customer service departments of their local stores.
A Sears spokesman said the retailer was notified on Thursday that CPI was immediately ceasing its U.S. operations.
“We are working with CPI to ensure that it fulfills its outstanding orders and provides ordered pictures to our members and customers,” Howard Riefs, director of Sears’ corporate public relations, wrote