Saturday, April 26, 2008

What's the Frequency, Kmart?

The transformation that the Kresge company underwent with the introduction of Kmart was dramatic, to put it very mildly. Among the most impressive aspects were the sheer speed and scale of the rollout. Once the final decision was made to push forward with Kmart, Kresge president Harry Cunningham gave a mandate to Kresge’s real estate department that at least 60 leases be secured for new Kmart sites to accommodate the planned rapid-fire growth. As mentioned, there were 18 Kmarts in operation at the end of 1962. 35 would be added in 1963, 35 more in 1964, and 34 more in 1965. By the end of the decade, there would be over 270 Kmarts in all regions of the United States, as well as Canada and Puerto Rico.

Aside from four small-footprint stores that were used in part for development purposes (Kresge called them “bantam” K-marts), the average square footage of the earliest Kmarts was 60,000, growing to 75,000 within a couple of years and to over 90,000 square feet by the end of the 60’s. In the following decade, they would consistently exceed 120,000 square feet.

The simple, rectangular, box-like design of the Kmart stores was a definite aid in the speed at which the stores opened, with average construction time at a brief six months per store. Another key factor was Kresge’s insistence on building free-standing stores in most cases, thereby avoiding frustrating (and costly) delays at the hands of shopping center developers. Kmarts were often located near other stores, but were rarely connected to them.

Kresge sought to open at least two (often more) stores in quick succession within a given market in order to maximize advertising dollars. The first major market, for obvious reasons, was the Detroit metro area, Kresge’s hometown, where seven Kmarts were operating within the first two years. Atlanta, Denver, Knoxville, Fresno and Charlotte were among the other early multiple-store markets.

The store carried a full line of merchandise, including clothes, kitchen items, home improvement and auto accessories , sporting goods, a camera department (remember the “Focal” brand?), electronics (or “Television and Hi-Fi” as such departments were then commonly called), jewelry, and in many cases, a full-line supermarket. A number of the departments were leased, among them sporting goods, cameras and jewelry.

Most notably the supermarkets were leased, from a number of different operators. The early Kmart supermarket lessees were moderate-sized grocery firms, including Borman Food Stores, Inc., the first operator of the some of the K-mart supermarkets in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. Even small family-owned grocers got in on some of the action. When the Benton Harbor, Michigan Kmart opened in 1963, for example, the supermarket portion was operated by John Sassano, an independent grocer based in Hobart, Indiana. The largest operator of Kmart supermarkets would be Detroit-based Allied Supermarkets, who signed on with the company in June 1964. Allied up to that point had operated food stores in the Midwest, Texas and Oklahoma under the names Wrigley and Humpty Dumpty, among others. They would eventually operate grocery units in a great many Kmart stores all over the country well into the 1970’s. The supermarket areas averaged 20-24,000 square feet and were all thoroughly branded “Kmart”, regardless of the operator. There even was a line of private label items, including Kmart potato chips!

The stores were big, fairly colorful, and most importantly featured discount prices across the board. And then there were the “special buys” (later called “bluelight” specials) to drive high-volume sales on select items. Kmart’s selling prices were set at Kresge headquarters in Detroit, and interestingly, the individual Kmart store managers were given the authority to lower prices to beat local competition, but they were forbidden to raise them. “Charge It!” banners abounded.
Customers showed up en masse, and most of them instantly became regulars. A retailing legend was born.

The photos, dating from late 1962/early 1963, show some of the earliest Detroit area Kmarts, including an exterior view (the Kmart logo would be tweaked slightly on future stores), and views of various departments. The woman shopping in the supermarket area resembles Barbara Billingsley, TV’s Mrs. Cleaver. She’s shopping the detergent aisle, and if you look carefully you can see some boxes of Tide, that most photogenic of consumer products, to her lower right. There's a mezzanined furniture area visible behind the camera department, a feature of a number of early stores. I find the last photo very touching, because it seems to feature a real-life mother and daughter, not professional models. The mom looks like the kind who would have had fresh cookies baking in the oven when you showed up home from school.


  1. I love the last photo! Could have passed for my mom and me twenty years later.

  2. Quote>>By the end of the decade, there would be over 270 Kmarts in all regions of the United States, as well as Canada and Puerto Rico.

    And also in Australia, through a joint venture. Although no longer affiliated with KMart/Sears, they still use the original red/blue logo (slightly modified)

  3. I think it's time I tossed my name in the comment box. Long-time follower of the blog, first time comment.

    Many memories for me were brought to the front of my mind with these pics. In the early 1980s, when I was much younger, my family always made a stop at the K-mart locations either in my hometown (Fond Du Lac WI) or the Oshkosh WI location, which the first image reminded me of (The outside of the store up there looked exactly like that one)

    They really were the place you could find just about anything a family needed at a decent price. They weren't as expensive as Copps, weren't as small as Shopko, or as tired-looking as Prange Way. All three of those aformentioned chains were Wisconsin-based regional names. K-mart, Zayre, and WoolCo were about the only national chain stores represented, K-mart having the biggest slice of the pie.

    My vivid memories include:

    * The classic 'K mart' signage, especially when it was lit. Those signs back in the day were big and clearly visible from the road.

    * The large entry vestibule / lobby.

    * That all-too familiar 'K-mart smell' that you'd wind up taking a bit whiff of as you entered the store.

    * Like with most other stores, ours had the dining area in back, and also a snack counter up front just off the checkout lines.

    * Those rows of fluorescent lights that seemed to go on forever.

    * My stores must have used a different 'muzak' soundtrack....often I'd hear ' soft pop / rock' or somesuch, ie: Fleetwood Mac's 1877 remake of 'Sentimental lady' among others.

    Other than one of those old heavy-duty box fans, I don't know if my family had any other 'K-mart' branded stuff. I never got to see the 'supermarket' side of the chain....I believe these were all done with in the late 1970s. My hometown store didn't open until 1979.

    I lost one slice of childhood when the entire Prange way chain went under in 1995, and yet another when our K-mart was done in with the first round of bankruptcy closings in 2002. The site is now a Home Depot. The Oshkosh store was rebranded 'Sears Grand'.

    From what I hear, K-marts of today (some have been rebranded "Sears Grand") just aren't the same as back 25 years ago, that's for sure. It's a shame too, as I prefer them over that certain chain with a :) as its mascot.

    Nice blog. Keep up the good work. I'll keep reading.

  4. My Kmart memories were going to the local store for those wonderful ham and cheese sandwiches they sold in the deli case.

  5. Didi- It's a great one for sure.

    Jamcool - Thanks, and you're right, I shouldn't have left our "down under" friends out. The first Kmart opened there in '69. I've seen the Aussie logo and think it's a nice, just slightly updated version of the classic logo.

    Mark - Thanks so much for sharing those great, vivid memories! Your memories are similar to mine of the suburban Chicago Kmarts. And I agree about those "endless" light strips. My family and I were in a North Carolina antique mall last year that was an ex-Kmart and they had every other strip of lights turned off to save money. The place was still very well lit! I laughed when I read about the song "Sentimental Lady" - seems like you heard that one everywhere back then - the ultimate background music. The Kresge record was actually from a much earlier era.

    Jeff - Funny how we remember things by how good the food was!

  6. The hot Spanish peanuts were good.
    I also remember shopping at K-mart Foods in the late 60s-70s. Oh, and the Hot dog french fry special at the "GRILL" was a fave too.

  7. Dave: I know the antique mall you're talking about. It's in Burlington and it's a Kmart frozen in time. There was another one like this a few miles away in Greensboro, but I think it's been remodeled beyond recognition.

  8. Dave - I don't know about well lit... Our local Kmart turned off half of their lights (as did several other stores) to save energy a few years back, and all they accomplished was to make the stores look dingy[er].

    One of our local Safeways just remodeled, and their lighting is even worse - the main block of aisles/shelving is well list, but the remainder of the store is dimmed. I don't know what effect they were trying for... but the result is actually very creepy.

  9. Anonymous - I never tried the peanuts, but they smelled good, as I remember.

    Steven - That's exactly the one. My wife's family has a place in the Western NC mountains, and we were driving from there to Raleigh. Antique malls seem to have a magnetic pull for us when we're on roadtrips. That one's not bad, but I'll bet I spent half the time checking out details of the vintage Kmart instead of what they were selling!

    Derek - The lighting was good by antique mall standards, but I am surprised that they would do such a thing with an active, major-brand chain store, if only for appearances sake. I guess they are reluctant to invest in more energy efficient lighting. I suppose the Safeway you're referring to has the newer technology, and they went for "dramatic" but got "dim" instead.

  10. Here in Chillicothe we still have a Super Kmart. Being only 21 I don't have such memories but my grandmother used to refer to Kresge's the Kmart as the "Red Front Jewlery Store". I hope Super Kmart stays here though because it was here long before Wal*Mart and I do have loyalty to Kmart.

  11. Andrew - Wow, that's a neat story from your grandmother. Kresge's original 5 and 10 cent stores were referred to as "Red Front" stores, owing to their red signage. After World War I, Kresge added a second group of stores called "Green Front" stores that carried more expensive items - 25 cents to a dollar!