Freedom Stores Inc., which is liquidating its 11 Freedom Home & Electronics stores across the U.S., including the one in Columbus, several months ago had reached a $2.5 million settlement with attorneys general in North Carolina and Virgina, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The December 2014 settlement, according to the Consumer Bureau, came amid allegations that the company's various businesses used "illegal tactics" to collect debts primarily from military personnel, Freedom's target market. A civil penalty of $100,000 also was levied in the case, which the Consumer Bureau said included filing "illegal" lawsuits to collect debts, debiting customer bank accounts without authorization, and contacting their commanding officers.
The Consumer Bureau said the activity included Freedom Stores Inc., Freedom Acceptance Corp., and Military Credit Services LLC. The Better Business Bureau office in Columbus had put Freedom on a consumer warning alert.
“Our nation’s servicemembers deserve better than to be targeted with illegal collections tactics when they are struggling to pay their bills,” Rich Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement at the time. “Freedom Stores and its affiliated companies were filing thousands of lawsuits in Virginia against consumers not from there, taking money from some consumers’ bank accounts without permission, and using the military chain of command to pressure and humiliate servicemembers."
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Norfolk, Va.-based Freedom Stores announced last weekend that it was shuttering all of its stores and liquidating merchandise, with a Columbus employee saying the target date for closing is July 31.
The company landed at Cross Country Plaza shopping center on Macon Road in June 2013, filling space that had been vacated by Books-A-Million a few months earlier. Called Freedom Furniture and Electronics when it first landed here, the store’s target market was military personnel, including those needing special financing.
Link Melley, the company’s president, said in a statement announcing the store closures that economic changes in his industry were the root cause of the 11-store chain’s demise. He said it was with “heavy hearts” that the business was forced to “say goodbye” to its customers.
“First, the lease-to-own industry that provides alternatives to Freedom Home & Electronics’ traditional financing is now in all competitors’ stores and has seriously affected our customer traffic,” Melley said. “Second, the price of televisions and other consumer electronics, which make up half of our sales, has decreased significantly, and we simply can’t make up the volume.”
Melley said Freedom will continue to assist customers with repairs, warranty and account issues after the brick-and-mortar storefronts are closed. That department can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-866-250-5148. He also said two of his other companies, Military Credit Services and Freedom Travel, are doing well and will remain open.
Aside from Columbus, the company operates outlets — all of which are being shuttered — in Hinesville Ga.; San Diego, Calif.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Oak Grove, Ky.; Fayetteville, N.C.; Junction City, Kan.; Lakewood, Wash.; Lawton, Okla.; Killeen, Texas; El Paso, Texas; Norfolk Va.; and Newport News, Va.
The closing of the local Freedom Home & Electronics store leaves a roughly 20,000-square-foot vacancy at Cross Country Plaza, with the hole even larger at the center from the closure more than two years ago of Blockbuster Video a couple of doors down from Freedom. Radio Shack, adjacent to Freedom, also went dark earlier this year.
All three succumbed to changes in their respective industries, with Blockbuster specifically experiencing plunging revenue as Netflix and movie rental kiosks took major bites out of its business. Internet streaming of movies and other programming also continues to grow steadily.
Cross Country Plaza is anchored by a Publix supermarket, a T.J.Maxx retail store and OfficeMax. The shopping center’s owner, Atlanta-based Coro Realty Advisors, could not be reached Tuesday for comment. The company purchased the nearly 400,000-square-foot center from Glenwood Development Co. in June 2013, paying $36.6 million. G.H. Anderson & Co. and Bavin Southeast Investments were part of the purchasing group.
Cross Country Plaza was built in 1957 and is considered the city’s oldest shopping center, with it heralding movement by the general population of Columbus and commercial businesses away from the traditional downtown area.
The center also is a survivor itself, having outlived the former Columbus Square Mall, which opened in 1965 across Macon Road and operated until being bought by the city in 1999 to be torn down and make way for a public library, a city services center and a Muscogee County School District administration building.