Iconic Companies That Went Bankrupt or Disappeared

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Companies come and go, particularly in the retail world, but it can be quite shocking when iconic companies go bankrupt and disappear. Legendary companies like Toys R Us and Blockbuster once dominated their markets and seemed invincible — but they’re just memories from the past now. A few icons quietly faded away.

Some giant companies had a miracle comeback after hitting rock bottom, but plenty of others weren’t so lucky. Let’s take a nostalgic look back at companies that went bankrupt or fell off the face of the Earth.

Blockbuster Video

The best place to be on a Friday night was at Blockbuster Video — at least in the 1980s and 1990s. Families, adults and teenagers walked through rows of box office hits, trying to pick the best movies to rent and watch that night.

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However, the Blockbuster nights and “Be Kind, Rewind” rituals soon came to an end when Blockbuster got its butt kicked by Netflix, Redbox automated kiosks and video-on-demand services. Only one Blockbuster store survives in the entire world, and that’s in Bend, Oregon.

Bankruptcy Date: September 2010

Compaq

From the 1980s to the 1990s, Compaq was one of the big dogs in the personal computer (PC) industry. It was the first company to re-engineer the IBM PC, and it became the No. 1 seller of the PCs. However, Dell’s rise hurt Compaq’s profits in the late 1990s.

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Failing to successfully compete with Dell led to Compaq’s slow destruction. In 2001, HP snatched up Compaq for $25 billion. In the end, HP limited and eventually stopped selling Compaq products to make room for HP items in the market. RIP Compaq.

Date of Death: 2013

Forever 21

Low prices? Check. Ultra-trendy clothes? Check. Filed for bankruptcy? Yep, check. Forever 21 was one of the first offenders of fast fashion, producing cheap, trendy and easily disposable clothing. In the early 2000s, the company successfully recreated designer and high fashion apparel and made it accessible to everyone.

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However, some experts blame fast fashion for its current failures. “Knockoff” lawsuits hit Forever 21 left and right, from Ariana Grande in 2019 to Gucci in the past. Socially conscious consumers called out Forever 21 for its environmental impact and mistreatment of factory workers. Other experts believe Forever 21 went bust because most stores are located in the dying mallscape.

Bankruptcy Date: September 2019

Kodak

Many photographers remember Kodak for giving everyone the means to capture precious moments with yellow disposable cameras in the early 1990s. However, the company was a powerful force in the photography world since 1888, concentrating on photo printing with film. In the late 1990s, Kodak began to struggle when photographers abandoned photographic film for digital photos.

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Also, more consumers started to share photos online and use digital printing. Kodak released its own line of digital cameras but failed to compete with Canon, Sony and Nikon, which ultimately pushed the company to file for bankruptcy. Kodak still exists, but it’s more of a nostalgic vintage brand rather than a dominant one.

Bankruptcy Date: January 2012

Washington Mutual

Washington Mutual, or WaMu, was America’s largest savings and loan association. However, its world was turned upside down in 2008, when WaMu expanded way too fast in poor communities and issued mortgages to unqualified home buyers. The losses were huge, but things got much worse for WaMu.

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The biggest tipping point came when depositors withdrew $16.7 billion within 10 days. Consequently, the government seized the bank, and WaMu declared bankruptcy. JPMorgan Chase bought most of its assets. WaMu’s downfall was the largest bank failure in U.S. history.

Bankruptcy Date: September 2008

RadioShack

RadioShack didn’t just file for bankruptcy once; the electronics chain filed twice. First, the company was unprepared for the mobile phone boom. Second, the chain tried to sell merchandise online, but Amazon and Best Buy knocked RadioShack out of the running. After 11 back-to-back quarterly losses, RadioShack declared bankruptcy the first time.

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General Wireless bought RadioShack, making it a private company and giving it another chance to compete with the big dogs. However, the company unsuccessfully co-branded with Sprint, leading to its second bankruptcy in 2017.

Bankruptcy Dates: March 2015 and March 2017

Borders Bookstore

Many adults spent hours reading books at Borders, one of the nation’s greatest bookstores — for a while. Forty years ago, the franchise started as a family-run business, eventually growing to become a popular hangout until 2010. Some experts think the internet or Amazon killed Borders, while others believe the bookstore dug its own grave.

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Consumers started preferring e-readers and online shopping instead of going to bookstores. Amazon was one of the original companies to jump on those trends. Unfortunately, Borders joined the Web and e-books craze too late. Its massive debt didn’t help either.

Bankruptcy Date: September 2011

Toys R Us

For many adults, saying goodbye to Toys R Us was emotional because it was a farewell to their own childhood. The toy store first opened in 1948 and became the ultimate destination to buy toys, bikes, video games and birthday presents for kids well into the 1990s.

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In the 2000s, however, the store struggled to compete with Amazon and other online merchants. A combination of financial woes and vicious investors forced the company to file for bankruptcy in 2017 and close all of its stores in 2018. However, the company plans to come back from the dead by the end of 2019, with two stores in the U.S.

Bankruptcy Date: September 2017

Sears

Once upon a time, Sears was a dominant retail chain that began as a mail-order catalog company in 1892. The company expanded, becoming the go-to department store for clothing, bedding, furniture, appliances and housewares. However, Walmart began to outshine Sears in the 1990s.

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Declining sales led to the parent company filing for bankruptcy. However, the department store isn’t going down without a fight. The company’s chairman, Eddie Lampert, invested billions of dollars to save Sears from total annihilation and to give it another shot at life. Will the parent company be able to revive Sears?

Bankruptcy Date: October 2018

WOW Air

WOW Air was an Icelandic ultra-low-cost carrier that began operating in 2012. After reaching its one-millionth passenger and expanding to North America, it seemed as if the airline was destined for success. Instead, its demise was messy, especially for its customers.

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In March 2019, WOW Air went bust and abruptly canceled all services. Thousands of passengers were left stranded on both sides of the Atlantic. Yikes. The airline was drowning in thousands of claims and failed to get a new investment that could have saved the company.

Bankruptcy Date: March 2019

Pacific Gas & Electric Co

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is another company that has filed for bankruptcy more than once. It is one of the largest electric utility businesses in California and the country. California’s energy crisis caused rolling blackouts and rising costs, forcing PG&E to file for bankruptcy in 2001.

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California suffered from catastrophic wildfires in both 2017 and 2018, and state authorities investigated PG&E’s role in causing the fires, which would have led to billions of dollars in liability for the company. PG&E declared bankruptcy for the second time in 2019. Experts criticized the move and degraded PG&E for refusing to focus on safety and the prevention of future wildfires. The company is still active and insists that the bankruptcy won’t impact customers.

Bankruptcy Dates: April 2001 and January 2019

Chrysler

One of the “Big Three” automobile manufacturers in the U.S., Chrysler fell victim to the financial crisis of 2008-2010. With $4 billion in debt, the automobile company crashed into bankruptcy in 2009. The government urged creditors to forgive Chrysler’s debts, but they didn’t budge.

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Many workers at factories, suppliers and dealers feared they would lose their jobs. Some Chrysler plants shut down temporarily, but Chrysler ultimately remained in business. After the government intervened and Chrysler secured an alliance with Fiat, the company exited bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy Date: April 2009

MCI WorldCom

Originally known as Long Distance Discount Services, MCI Worldcom changed its name in 1995 to Worldcom and then transitioned to MCI Worldcom in 1998. Of course, MCI Worldcom is known for more than its frequent name changes and bankruptcy. It’s remembered for the fraud that auditors discovered in 2002.

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The company resorted to fraud after its earnings took a nosedive, and executives wanted to keep the stock alive. MCI Worldcom’s CEO, Bernie Ebbers, went to jail in 2006 for the scandal, which was the largest accounting fraud in American history at the time.

Bankruptcy Date: July 2002

Sports Authority

Sports and outdoor enthusiasts shopped at Sports Authority for everything from activewear to kayaks, making it the largest sporting goods retailer in the nation at one point. However, its increasing debt, poor online presence and tough competition eventually led to its bankruptcy. The company planned to reorganize during its downfall, but the situation got much worse.

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A few months after filing for bankruptcy, Sports Authority ended up closing stores across the nation permanently. The company sold its assets to one of its competitors, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and the website even redirected customers to the Dick’s Sporting Goods website.

Bankruptcy Date: February 2016

Payless ShoeSource

Payless ShoeSource was once a popular discount shoe retailer with stores around the world. In the 1980s, the company was best known for its sneakers with velcro straps. Can’t you just hear the loud ripping noises that ruled the decade? However, the retailer’s popularity faded in the 2000s. It also didn’t help that Payless had a weak e-commerce strategy.

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The company declared bankruptcy in 2017 with a plan to reduce its debt and increase its profits. However, the company’s tactics failed, and Payless flopped into bankruptcy again in 2019. This time the company shut down all its stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Bankruptcy Dates: April 2017 and February 2019

Circuit City

For all your television and electronic needs, Circuit City was the place to go from the 1940s to the 1990s. However, the company got into hot water after Best Buy showed up in the market. Circuit City also stopped selling appliances, which was a risky move.

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Circuit City’s bad luck continued due to its out of the way store locations and outdated shops. Some experts blame the company’s failure on the poor economy and lack of consumer spending, but others think Circuit City failed all on its own with poor business practices.

Bankruptcy Date: November 2008

Thomas Cook Airlines

With a legacy spanning 178 years, Thomas Cook was once a successful travel company and airline. The first sign of the company’s collapse was a loss in profit in 2018. To help the airline’s struggling finances, experts advised Thomas Cook to divide the business. However, the company refused to split up the travel stores and airline.

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In 2019, the company got into more trouble and was forced to close its travel agent stores. Finally, Thomas Cook abruptly came to an end in September 2019, when it suddenly suspended all services and left 150,000 British travelers stranded around the world.

Bankruptcy Date: September 2019

Polaroid

Polaroid Corporation is best known for its toylike instant cameras that quickly printed out photos with the iconic white frames. The photo company earned $3 billion in revenue at its peak in 1991. However, the rise of digital photography did some damage and pushed the company into bankruptcy in 2001.

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Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only time the Polaroid Corporation declared bankruptcy. The company filed again in 2008. Recently, the company expanded its digital products, selling tablets and television sets. When it comes to instant cameras, Polaroid also isn’t going down without a fight, as proven by the fact that instant-print cameras are making a comeback.

Bankruptcy Dates: October 2001 and December 2008

Pets.com

Founded in 1998, Pets.com was well-known for its doglike sock puppet that carried a microphone. The company sold pet supplies, but the mascot was its biggest hit. The puppet was so popular that it appeared in the 1999 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as well as an ad during the 2000 Super Bowl.

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It was also interviewed by People magazine and Good Morning America. However, the sock puppet couldn’t save the company from collapsing. Pets.com went into the red, even though its sales rose. Two years after the company was founded, Pets.com liquidated and went out of business.

Date of Death: November 2000

Quiznos

Known for its toasted subs, Quiznos was established in 1981. Consumers enjoyed the sandwiches so much that the chain expanded to 5,000 stores over time, making the chain one of the largest submarine sandwich shops in the country. However, its moment at the top didn’t last forever.

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Subway rose to dominance, and Quiznos struggled to compete. The company declared bankruptcy in 2014. To win back customers, Quiznos tried a coupon campaign, but the plan backfired. Today, Quiznos is considered one of the worst fast food restaurants in the U.S.

Bankruptcy Date: March 2014

Lehman Brothers

Lehman Brothers was the fourth-largest investment bank in the nation at one point, so it’s no surprise that Lehman’s bankruptcy filing was also massive, affecting WaMu and even the global financial crisis. No one ever imagined the company would collapse, but due to risky housing assets and the lack of a buyer, the company fell off a financial cliff.

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Unfortunately, nobody saved the gigantic investment bank that was once worth $691 billion. Experts say the government made a controversial choice when it didn’t bail out the company. Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in 2008 and liquidated shortly afterwards.

Bankruptcy Date: September 2008

Levitz Furniture

Founded in 1910, Levitz Furniture was the most popular place to buy furniture for every room you could imagine creating in a house. Consumers favored Levitz because they could take home brand-name furniture for a lower price. The company even had a catchy jingle, “You’ll love it at Levitz.”

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However, the happy song got stuck in a loop and ended. Levitz filed for bankruptcy for the first time in 1997 and downsized the company. In 2005, Levitz declared bankruptcy again. The company’s final bankruptcy was in 2007.

Bankruptcy Dates: September 1997, October 2005 and October 2007

Tower Records

Remember when CDs were a hit and the only way to listen to audio samples was through a “Scan and Listen” station? In the 1980s, CDs were a new age format for storing music, but they didn’t earn real attention until they outsold LPs for the first time in 1989.

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Tower Records had been an established business since the 1960s. The company recognized the high potential of CDs and became the first to provide “Scan and Listen” stations in stores for customers to test out CDs. The company was even one of the first retailers to offer online sales. However, the constant changes in the music industry pushed Tower Records to declare bankruptcy twice.

Bankruptcy Dates: February 2004 and August 2006

Hostess

With a long shelf life and tasty flavors, Twinkies have a popular — yet unhealthy — reputation. It seemed like the soft, yellow treats could never disappear. However, things took a turn for the worse for Twinkie’s parent company, Hostess. The company went into bankruptcy in 2004 and again in 2012 due to a recession, rising material costs and tough competition.

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When the company declared bankruptcy in 2012, Twinkies — and all the other Hostess products — vanished from production and shelves. No one was happy about that. The company worked to turn its business around and also increased Twinkies’ shelf life along the way. Twinkies returned to shelves in 2013 amid great customer excitement. Twinkies have always been in high demand, but this time it was greater than before. Hostess had to die to come back strong.

Bankruptcy Dates: September 2005 and November 2012

Napster

Created in 1999, Napster started as a file-sharing software service. Most users shared and downloaded audio songs. Napster’s popularity rose, but artists like Dr. Dre and Metallica saw the company as a piracy site that could destroy the music industry. In fact, Dr. Dre blatantly said, “F— Napster!”

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In 2001, the courts ordered Napster to shut everything down. The company was forced to file bankruptcy and liquidate its assets in 2002. Everyone thought Napster was dead for good, but another company bought its assets and rebranded as Napster 2.0. Currently, Napster is a music subscription service, like Spotify.

Bankruptcy Date: September 2002

David’s Bridal

Today, more people are delaying marriage or not walking down the aisle at all. That’s bad news for David’s Bridal, a retailer that specializes in bridal apparel. The company sunk into massive debt when consumer tastes changed, and more brides wanted nontraditional dresses for their weddings.

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Failing to adapt to trend changes and to build a strong online presence, David’s Bridal filed for bankruptcy in 2018. The company strived to lower its debt by more than $400 million, while keeping its stores and website open.

Bankruptcy Date: November 2018

Claire’s

Claire’s is a teenage accessories chain, notorious for its ear-piercing service. For years, the company struggled with massive debt. Even worse, online sales were on the rise, and Claire’s had a weak online strategy. As a result, the company went into bankruptcy in 2018.

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Claire’s continues to operate its shops, but the retailer is still dragged down by private equity debt and online competition. The company needs to reduce its debt by $2 billion. Will Claire’s succeed or go out of business?

Bankruptcy Date: March 2018

Things Remembered

Need to find a personalized gift or get something engraved? One of the best places to go for personal giftware is Things Remembered. However, the retailer has been suffering from financial woes. With a debt of $144 million, the retailer had no choice but to declare bankruptcy in 2019.

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Of course, it doesn’t help that the company’s stores are mostly located in failing mallscapes. Also, online shopping has become a dominant force. Things Remembered is still alive, but the company has shut down more than half of its stores.

Bankruptcy Date: February 2019

American Apparel

American Apparel is exactly what it sounds like: The company sells “made in America” clothing. For six consecutive years, the company has lost a lot of money. Its reputation was also damaged by its former CEO, Dov Charney, who mistreated employees. Once he was exposed, the company kicked him to the curb, but it may have been too little too late.

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American Apparel went into bankruptcy for the first time in 2015. One year later, the chain declared bankruptcy again. The company’s new motto is “Globally Sourced, Ethically Made, Still Sweatshop Free. That’s American Apparel.” Currently, the retailer only operates online.

Bankruptcy Dates: October 2015 and November 2016

General Motors

General Motors (GM) stared death in the face during one of the worst economic disasters in the U.S. By 2008, the company was $30.9 billion in debt after car sales went into a free fall. Consequently, GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

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When GM went bust, it was one of the largest Chapter 11 bankruptcies in American history. Many jobs were on the line. However, thanks to the government, GM was rescued from extinction and given a second chance to recover.

Bankruptcy Date: June 2009

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