Kmart prepares to close its 4th remaining store

Kmart prepares to close its 4th remaining store thumbnail
The familiar sights and sounds of Kmart are still there. There’s the constant beige-onbeige color scheme, the scuffed and faded floor tiles and the refrigerators, as well as the clothes and refrigerators for toddlers.

There’s even a canned recording that begins, “Attention, Kmart shoppers” — except it’s to remind folks about COVID-19 precautions, not to alert them to a flash sale over in ladies’ lingerie like in the days of old.

Many of the shelves are bare, though, at the Kmart in Avenel, New Jersey, picked over by bargain hunters as the store prepares to close its doors for good April 16.

kmart-first-store-1962.jpg
Since its founding in 1962, Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, brought about by years of falling sales, changes in shopping habits and the looming shadows of Walmart, Target and Amazon. American Stock/Getty Images

Once it shutters, the number of Kmarts in the U.S. – once well over 2,000 – will be down to three last holdouts, according to multiple reports, in a retail world now dominated by Walmart, Target and Amazon.

The demise of the the store in the middle-class suburb, 15 miles south of New York City, is the tale of the death of the discount department store writ small. You think about it all the time because there are so many stores closing, but it’s still very sad,” said Michelle Yavorsky, a cashier at Avenel. She said that she has been working at the store for two years. “I will miss the place. Many people used to shop here. Kmart was a major retailer that sold products endorsed by celebrities Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith. It sponsored NASCAR races and was featured in movies like “Rain Man” (and “Beetlejuice”) It was name-dropped in songs by artists from Eminem to the Beastie Boys to Hall and Oates; in 2003, Eminem bought a 29-room, suburban Detroit mansion once owned by former Kmart chairman Chuck Conaway.

Retail Giant Kmart relaunches its BlueLight Special
In its heyday, Kmart sold product lines endorsed by celebrities Martha Stewart (right), Jaclyn Smith (left) and Kathy Ireland (middle), sponsored NASCAR auto races and was mentioned in movies including “Rain Man” and “Beetlejuice. “ RJ Capak/WireImage

The chain cemented a place in American culture with its Blue Light Specials, a flashing blue orb affixed to a pole that would beckon shoppers to a flash sale in progress. Layaway programs were adopted early by Kmart, which allowed customers without credit to reserve items and then pay in installments.

Kmart was once a place that had everything. You could shop for back-to school supplies for your children, get your car tuned up, and even grab a meal on the premises.

“Kmart is part of America,” said Michael Lisicky (Baltimore-based author who has written many books about U.S. retail history). “Everybody went shopping at Kmart, regardless of whether they liked it or not. They had everything. You had toys. You had sporting goods. You had candy. You had stationery. There was something for everyone. It was almost as much a social visit than a shopping trip. It was a great place to spend hours. These are just a few of the many American landmarks that have dotted the American landscape over time. “

St Jude Thanks And Giving Campaign Shopping Spree
Marlo Thomas and St. Jude patient Mary attend the St. Jude Thanks And Giving Campaign Shopping Spree at Kmart in 2014. Kmart used to have a lot: You could shop for back-to school supplies for your children and get a meal on the spot. Jenny Anderson

Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, brought about by years of falling sales, changes in shopping habits and the looming shadow of Walmart, which began its life within months of Kmart’s founding in 1962.

Struggling to compete with Walmart’s low prices and Target’s trendier offerings, Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2002 — becoming the largest U.S. retailer to take that step — and announced it would close more than 250 stores.

Derailed by Amazon

A few years later, hedge fund executive Edward Lampert combined Sears and Kmart and pledged to return them to their former greatness, but the recession and the rising dominance of Amazon contributed to derailing those goals. Sears filed for Chapter 11 in 2018 and currently has a handful of stores left in the U.S. where it once had thousands.

Kmarts are still operating in Westwood, New Jersey, Bridgehampton, New York’s Long Island and Miami. Mark Cohen, former CEO of Sears Canada and director of retail studies at Columbia University, New York, said that it didn’t have a happy ending. Trying to compete with Walmart on price was a foolish strategy, he said, and Lampert was criticized for not having a retail background and appearing more interested in stripping off the assets of the two chains for their cash value.

“It’s an example of greed, avarice, and incompetence,” Cohen stated. “Sears should never have gone away; Kmart wasn’t in better shape, but it wasn’t fatally so. They’re both gone.

“Retailers fall by the wayside sometimes because they’re selling things people don’t want to buy,” he continued. “In the case Kmart, all they used to sell is no longer being sold. People are now buying it from Walmart or Target. “

Transformco, which owns Kmart and Sears, did not respond to an email seeking comment and a phone number listed for the company was not taking messages.

Nationwide, some former Kmarts remain vacant while others have been replaced by other big-box stores, fitness centers, self-storage facilities and even churches. One former Kmart in Colorado Springs is now a popular dine in movie theater.

BRUCE BISPING • bbisping@startribune.com Minneapolis, MN., Thursday, 11/26/2009]  (left to right)  Wicahpi (cq)Thompson (age-4) and Mato (cq) Thompson (age-5) shopped for toys with their mother, Rhea Blue Arm (cq), at the Kmart at Lake and Nicollet A
Children shopping for toys with their mother at a former Kmart in Minneapolis. Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Employees at the Kmart in Avenel found out last month that the store would close.

Unlike 20 years ago, when news of impending Kmart closures around the country prompted an outpouring of support from loyal shoppers and a Detroit radio station even mounted a campaign to try and save a local store, the closing of the Avenel location was met mostly with an air of resignation. “It’s a little nostalgic, because I’ve lived in this area my whole life, but it’s just another retailer closing,” said Jim Schaber of nearby Iselin, who claimed that his brother worked for years in the Kmart shoe department. It’s another sign that people are shopping online and not visiting the stores. “

Mike Jerdonek was a truck driver who fondly recalled his childhood shopping trips to Kmart in Brooklyn and Queens.

“It’s almost like history is passing right in front our eyes,” he said, as he sat outside the Avenel shop. “It was a great place to shop when I was younger because the prices were low. It’s kinda sad to see it gone now. “

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