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.