Dave Polkow, like the captain on a sinking ship, will stay in his Toys R Us store until the very end, when the lights are turned out and the doors are locked for good.
He's spent the majority of his career working for the toy store — 40 years in all. For the last 25 years he's been in Billings, managing the Toys R Us store that sits just off 24th Street West near King Avenue West.
In fact, he was there for the store's construction, having been brought in by the company to run it.
"We put the first pieces on it," he said. "And we'll take the last pieces off."
Toys R Us is one of a handful of stores in Billings going out of business as their parent companies are dissolved and their assets sold to pay off creditors. Herbergers department store at Rimrock Mall is in the middle of its own liquidation sale.
The closures of both Toys R Us and Herbergers resulted from bankruptcy filings by their parent companies, Toys R Us, Inc. and Bon-Ton, Inc. Bon-Ton was auctioned off by U.S. Bankruptcy court and purchased by liquidators in April. Toys R Us filed a motion in U.S. Bankruptcy court asking to liquidate its assets, a move that was approved by the court in March.
In these cases, liquidators take control of the stores and sell off the remaining inventory, fixtures and equipment in an effort to pay back creditors.
Polkow motioned to the signs in his store advertising the close-out discounts. He had just changed them to show the new cuts: 40 percent to 60 percent off the marked prices.
"The signage is being updated every week," he said. "And the liquidator controls the signage."
The liquidator controls everything, he said. The prices on the fixtures, the rate at which the discounts drop and even the store hours are all dictated by the liquidation company.
Liz Donlin, manager at Herbergers, acknowledged that Bon-Ton's liquidation company had taken over the store's going-out-of-business sale. Signs were up advertising the discounts and the store was busy with shoppers.
But Donlin declined to talk about the store's closure; the liquidation company had requested staff not speak about it. Bon-Ton was auctioned off to Great American Group and Tiger Capital Group, two firms which specialize in retail liquidation.
Liquidators have refined the process of closing out a store in order to maximize their profits. Everything gets sold, from merchandise to office equipment to shelving and display racks. The discounts move on a set schedule. First week, they typically mark down merchandise by only 10 or 20 percent. It's not until the final days that the steep discounts kick in.
It's a trade-off, Polkow said. A store will have more selection in the early weeks of a liquidation sale, but the discounts won't be as good. By the end, a shopper will find great prices, but it might be on items no one else wants.
The Better Business Bureau warns shoppers to be wary of those marked-down prices. Liquidators will sometimes bump prices up before they launch a close-out sale, meaning the discounts in the first few weeks aren't really discounts.
Some liquidators will also bring in merchandise from other stores they've closed down; anything not sold is a potential loss of profit. If something doesn't sell at one close-out sale, the liquidator will place it at the next sale hoping to get it off the books.
Polkow pointed around his store.
"They've brought in some of their own stuff," he said.
He also noted, for the first time, his Toys R Us store has no bikes. They all sold during the first weeks of the sale. He's never seen his store without bikes and it was a weird notion for him to grapple with.
It's been busy since the closure was announced and the sale started.
"It's Christmas traffic right now," he said.
Polkow praised his staff. All of his employs chose to stay with the store through the closure to help the process along. Two of his supervisors were recruited by other retail stores in town, and they even stayed on part time with Polkow to help.
"My guys are pretty good guys," he said. He's confident they'll all be able to find new work.
In the meantime, Polkow is leading them all through the store closure, keeping displays tidy, changing out signs and helping with the crowds. Many of the employees have been with the store for years and all of them still feel a sense of loyalty to their coworkers and to Polkow. They're invested, he said.
And that, more than anything, is what makes the Toys R Us closure so hard for Polkow.
"It's sad," he said. "It's sad every day."