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Kmart Turns To Bottle For Boost

NEW YORK -- Kmart Corp. wants to bring new meaning to "liquidity" in its bankruptcy proceedings.<BR><BR>Seeking to keep its drinking customer base intact, the Troy, Mich.-based discounter last week sought an emergency order allowing the retailer to...

NEW YORK — Kmart Corp. wants to bring new meaning to “liquidity” in its bankruptcy proceedings.

Seeking to keep its drinking customer base intact, the Troy, Mich.-based discounter last week sought an emergency order allowing the retailer to pay the claims of some of its liquor vendors, a category that Kmart said is “vital” to its reorganization efforts.

According to court papers, the aggregate claims are under $10 million. The retailer said several liquor vendors have stopped shipping because some state and local laws prohibit them from extending credit on unpaid balances.

Kmart also said that “liquor [is] an essential product sold in the debtors’ stores and an important component of the debtors’ inventory mix.”

At the same time that it’s seeking court approval to make the payments, Kmart said it was reserving its right to negotiate new trade terms with any liquor vendor as a condition of payment of any claim.

About 100 liquor vendors have been in contact with Kmart, which hasn’t made payment to them for amounts owed since Kmart’s Chapter 11 petition was filed on Jan. 22.

Other key vendors have filed objections with the Chicago bankruptcy court, asking that it not grant final approval of procedures involving reclamation claims for goods shipped but not paid.

Sara Lee Corp. filed an objection on behalf of its Intimates and Underwear unit, noting: “There simply is nothing that warrants requiring the vendors to wait until a plan is confirmed to receive payment for the goods. The debtors have requested $2 billion [debtor-in-possession] financing and have the means to pay the reclamation claims or return the goods.”

Separately, in a regulatory filing explaining second-quarter results, Sara Lee said it was owed $40 million by Kmart at the time of the retailer’s filing. Sara Lee also said that its exposure for receivables due from Kmart is “immaterial.”

C. Steven McMillan, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Sara Lee, explained in a statement Tuesday: “As Kmart’s financial issues became increasingly apparent over the last several months, Sara Lee implemented a number of procedures, such as carefully monitoring shipments and using various financial mechanisms, to lessen any impact from the Kmart bankruptcy.”

Sara Lee also said in the statement that its Intimates and Underwear business generated substantially all of the sales to Kmart because the company’s food and beverage and household products businesses sell their products to a third-party distributor, Fleming Corp., which in turn resells these products to Kmart.

Also unhappy with procedures, PepsiAmerica Inc., the Pepsi Bottling Group and Frito-Lay Inc. have reclamation demands totaling in excess of $6 million. The current procedures, which still require final court approval, allow for payment after confirmation of a plan of reorganization, or earlier at Kmart’s discretion. Pepsi said that the current “payment timetable proposed by the debtors is camouflage for what amounts to a 15-month, interest-free unsecured loan.”

Court papers said that Kmart is taking a year to pay allowed reclamation claims, with payments made in 25 percent increments over four consecutive fiscal quarters.

Compounding Kmart’s legal headaches in bankruptcy court is an objection by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE, to the retailer’s motion to implement a key employee retention program and allow certain employment agreements with members of the senior management team, including ceo Chuck Conaway. It charged that Kmart’s highest priority, even beyond the completion of key vendor agreements and decisions on what stores to close, “is feathering the nests of these allegedly ‘key’ employees.” The union, noting that the outlook for Kmart is still unclear, said no bargaining unit employees are covered by the retention program or the employment agreements.