Before discount stores popped up all across America, there were the variety stores. For decades, Middle America shopped at these stores for their basic needs – housewares and kitchen items, linens, basic clothing, shoes, school supplies, toys and so on. Most of the larger variety chains had their origin in the decades immediately preceding or following the beginning of the 20th century. They were fittingly known as “5 and 10 cent stores” in the early days, for the simple reason that most products sold for one of those two price points. Even as late as the early sixties, when the chains had long since begun carrying higher priced items, they were still popularly referred to as “dime stores”. Until well into the 1940’s, they were almost exclusively found in downtown locations, with shopping center locations slowly becoming part of the mix from that point on. Many variety stores had snack bars or luncheonettes. The chains’ stores had a similar look, especially from the exterior, with the signage style for a number of them virtually the same (until the early 1950’s at least)– a narrow, red sign across the full width of the storefront, with gold or silver serif lettering. Even many of the store names followed a recognizable pattern – F.W. Woolworth, J.J. Newberry, W.T. Grant, S.H. Kress, G.C. Murphy and…. S.S. Kresge.
S.S. Kresge Company, based in Detroit and officially founded in 1911 by Sebastian Spering Kresge, was the number three variety chain in the US at the dawn of the sixties, behind F.W. Woolworth and W.T. Grant. At the end of 1960, Kresge had 759 variety stores, mostly located in the Midwest and Eastern states. The company’s first stores in California wouldn’t even open until 1961, and their presence in the growing Southern states at this point was minimal at best. By all appearances, Kresge was a staid, conservative, regional retailer, expanding at a relatively steady, deliberate pace.
Behind the scenes, however, an exciting development was taking place at Kresge. Faced with the same challenges that were affecting the variety store category as a whole – declining profitability, increased labor costs, stores that were becoming too old, too small and too urban, and impacted by the success of upstart discounters such as E.J. Korvette, Kresge embarked on a plan to scope out the discount industry for themselves.
In 1957, Harry B. Cunningham, the energetic 50-year old head of sales for Kresge embarked on a new mission, one that would take him all over the country over the next two years. Cunningham was placed in charge of a project to explore the discount industry up close, visiting stores, taking note of what worked and what didn’t with an eye toward Kresge’s own entrance into the discount store business. Cunningham liked the potential he saw, and the initial plans and strategies began to come together. In March 1961, with Cunningham now at the helm of the company, the decision was made to go full steam ahead with “Kmart”, Kresge’s discount store concept.
To coincide with this, the decision was made to accelerate closing of many of the older, outmoded Kresge stores. In a number of cases, Kresge was locked into long-term leases on these older, less than desirable locations, so a third store format was devised to make use of those stores. Those Kresge stores would be converted to “Jupiter” stores, a bare-bones discount operation specializing in a limited line of high-demand, basic goods at deep discount prices. Robert Drew-Bear, in his excellent book “Mass Merchandising” cites that the Jupiter format “made it possible to move items such as price-maintained men’s underwear with extreme speed, whereas the same line barely moved as a (Kresge) store item”.
On January 25, 1962, the first store under the Kmart name opened, one that was generally thought of as a “test” Kmart in California’s San Fernando Valley, a store of only 24,000 square feet. The first “official” Kmart, a 60,000 square foot store, opened in the Detroit suburb of Garden City, Michigan on March 1 of that year. By the end of 1962, 18 Kmarts would be in operation.
It was an impressive start for an initiative that would profoundly change the S.S. Kresge Company and indeed American retailing in general. Within a few short years, the Kmart stores would leave not only Kresge’s variety store competition, including Woolworths and Grants, in the proverbial dust, but a good number of other retailers as well.
The first artist’s rendering is of the Kresge store at Pontiac Mall (later Summit Place Mall) of Pontiac, Michigan and dates from 1960. The second one, in color, is from an unknown location, 1959. Below is the Kresge store located at Winrock Center, in Albuquerque New Mexico, from 1961 along with renderings of the new formats - Jupiter and Kmart, from the same year.
Note: Thanks to the anonymous commenter who was kind enough to provide us a link to some vintage 1964 Kresge store "mood music" - Fantastic!