Let’s pour one out for old Kmart. You might not realize this (I didn’t) but they’re still in business, kind of. The store has a special place in my heart because, in my youth, they were sort of the go-to place in my little town. Today they’re a shadow of their former selves. They were conquered first by Wal-Mart, and then by the internet. When the Kmart near me closed, it had been a dark, shadowy place for years, somewhere I felt dirty just walking into. But it wasn’t always that way.
The history of Kmart
Kmart’s history begins with its founder, S.S. Kresge. Mr. Kresge was a traveling salesman in the end of the 19th century. He saw that F.W. Woolworth bought a lot of product for his growing string of stores (I guess calling yourself by initials was big back then) and decided to copy the model.
S.S. Kresge and company opened its first store in Memphis in 1897. His Detroit store, known well to Solid Signal team members, opened soon after. The model was identical to that of Woolworth’s. Various items were offered for low prices, from canned goods to clothing. It was known at the time as a “five and ten cent store” because of the large number of items that sold for those low prices.
The model worked. Not only did these discount stores become havens for shoppers, but they also became social hubs. This led to stores having soda fountains and even full restaurants.
The postwar years
S.S. Kresge stores were small and carried only low-priced goods. They were generally in the middle of major cities. Today we would think of them as competitors to CVS or Walgreens. The Kmart concept took flight in 1962 in San Fernando, California. Kmart was a full-service department store where you could even buy appliances and furniture. It was designed to be the original “one-stop shop.” And for a while, it was.
Many a kid in the 1970s got outfitted at Kmart. Many a teen listened to records on a record player bought there. Kmart was the center of suburban life.
So what happened?
Before the 1980s, Wal-Mart was a largely regional chain limited to the south. When they decided to go national, they destroyed competitor after competitor. Wal-Marts were bigger, better stocked, and had lower prices. Because they were being built so quickly, they were newer and more exciting than the existing stores.
Kmart wasn’t the only store that couldn’t hack it. Before Wal-Mart went national, stores like Caldor, Bradlees, Zayres, Belk, Lechmere, Ann & Hope, May Company, Harris’, Gottschalks, and others fell one by one as Wal-Mart got bigger and bigger. Even Sears, which was the world’s largest retailer, had to pivot. Sears made the decision in the late 1980s to try to compete with Wal-Mart on price instead of moving upmarket. That decision bought them 30 more years in the market but eventually spelled disaster for them.
And then, the internet
Of course, online stores like Amazon really made it hard for discount department stores. Of those old names, only Walmart (rebranded from Wal-Mart) has really been able to withstand the onslaught. Walmart has stayed afloat by matching Amazon on price and selection and adding in-store pickup. So far it’s worked.
Kmart stores suffered from poor maintenance and low stock. The entire chain was merged with Sears as that brand sank. Bankruptcies and reorganizations didn’t stop the slide, and the Kmart brand was sold to a new holding company in 2019. That company exists solely to close stores in an organized way. It’s a sad end to a longstanding brand.
The blue light special
Perhaps Kmart’s only lasting contribution to pop culture is the “blue light special.” Stores would literally have a blue roller light, like those used in police cars in the period, which would be placed near an area that was running a 1-day special. An announcer would come over the public address system and say, “Attention Kmart shoppers, there is a blue light special on…” and that was it. The race was on.
If you’re into really old weird nostalgia, head on over to this free archive of audio clips where you’ll find stored a lot of real, honest Kmart store audio recordings from the 1990s and before. There are in-store announcements, music, and some weird and wacky bits thrown in. Seriously, the blue light is calling you…