Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Kmart - Big Changes for the Bluelight

Having enjoyed a golden decade from the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies, from that point on things would become complicated for Kmart. Part of this was due to external factors such as competition and general economic ups and downs, but a series of management decisions made along the way certainly played a major factor as well.

While Kmart was an early pioneer in automated distribution, they were slow to adopt computer technology for inventory control and ordering, ostensibly to maintain a high level of independence for store managers, but it proved very costly in terms of efficiency. A much larger factor, from the public’s point of view, was the appearance of the stores. While looking at these photos tends to make me (and many of you, as I’ve learned) very nostalgic for those days, one would have to admit that by the time the 1980’s rolled around, the look had become extremely dated. Over time, the public perception of the company unfortunately (and in many respects undeservedly) shifted from a source of “value-priced” goods to one of cheap goods.

As the eighties rolled on, the company found itself fighting a two-front war, on one side against Wal-Mart, which by that time had grown well beyond the Mid-South region, becoming a true national competitor. Wal-Mart, with highly sophisticated information systems and very aggressive supplier policies became extremely formidable in price competition. On the other flank, Dayton-Hudson’s Target stores had expanded far outside of their original Midwestern footprint, in part through the acquisition of such regional chains as Richway, its sister nameplate Gold Circle and a large number of Gemco units from Lucky Stores. Pursuing a strategy that emphasized affordable style, Target signed up designer Michael Graves, among others, to develop chic housewares for those on a budget. Kmart was now in the unenviable position of having to compete with Target on style and Wal-Mart on price.

In 1987, Kmart took a final step in cutting ties to its origins by selling all but 11 of the remaining Kresge and Jupiter stores to Rapid-American Corporation’s McCrory Stores division. By the 1980’s Rapid-American was a key caretaker of America’s 5-and-10 store heritage, owning McCrory, H.L. Green, J.J. Newberry, T G & Y, and McLellan’s. Their only competitors in that fading segment were Woolworth’s and Ben Franklin. Ironically, S.S. Kresge had gotten his start in the business in 1897 as joint owner of a dime store in Memphis, Tennessee with J.G. McCrory. The pair would later open a Detroit store (where Kresge would establish his namesake company) and a handful of others before going their separate ways, starting variety store dynasties under their own names.

In a mid-eighties bid to shore up their fortunes, Kmart embarked on a spree of diversified retail acquisitions that would last into the next decade. The list was extensive. During this period, Kmart bought out, among others, Waldenbooks (and later on Borders Books), the predecessor of what would become Builders Square, The Sports Authority, Pay Less Northwest (a Wilsonville, Oregon-based operator of 164 drug stores in the western states), and OfficeMax, a big-box office supply firm that Kmart acquired a stake in when it sold them a handful of “Office Square” stores (a short lived office supply concept that traded on the Builders Square nameplate). Within a few years, Kmart would buy a controlling interest in OfficeMax. There was also a chain of membership stores called Pace Membership Warehouse. Eventually, Kmart would combine many of these into an entity called the Specialty Store Division. Over the long haul, these acquisitions proved to be little help to the company, and in the mid-90’s Kmart began to sell off or spin off these divisions in a succession nearly as rapid as when it bought them in the first place. A large number of the Pace stores were sold to arch-competitor Wal-Mart for conversion to Sam’s Clubs. In 1998, Kmart would sell off its flagging 112-store Canadian division to Toronto-based Hudson’s Bay Company, who would combine it with its 298-store Zellers division, the leading discount chain in Canada.

In 1990, Kmart took the first step towards changing its image, adopting a new logo for the first time. That year, the company replaced its familiar “Kmart” logo with a red block letter “K” with the word “mart” written in script in the upper leg of the K. In my opinion, the single letter looked a bit lonely up there on the expansive horizontal facades of most Kmart stores. The company must have taken pride in their new logo, as I learned when my wife and I stopped into a Kmart shorted after it was introduced. She had worked at this Kmart one Christmas season before we were married to supplement her teaching income, and we decided to pop in to say hi to the manager, her old boss. He asked our opinion of the new logo, and my wife commented on how it reminded her of the old “Big K” signs. Big K was a chain of mid-south discount stores that Wal-Mart bought out in the early eighties.

He didn’t appreciate the comparison. (Hey, at least we didn’t try to claim credit when years later they added the word “Big” to many of their signs starting in 1996!) Recently, Kmart has adopted a new logo, restoring “mart” to its rightful place.

A more positive effect came about when in 1997 Kmart persuaded domestic diva Martha Stewart to create a comprehensive line of household goods to be exclusively sold at Kmart. Called “Martha Stewart Everyday” this very broad product line included everything from dishes to cookware to linens, towels and bath d├ęcor, and has in many ways been a lifeline for Kmart. There has been rampant speculation as to whether Ms. Stewart will renew her agreement with Kmart when it expires in 2009.

Despite Martha’s best efforts, Kmart skidded inexorably toward bankruptcy as the nineties drew to a close. Incurring a staggering $2.46 billion dollar loss for 2001, Kmart filed for bankruptcy protection on January 22, 2002. Operating 2,114 stores at the time of the filing, massive closings would follow, and a great many people who grew up shopping at Kmart would suddenly find that there was no longer one in or near their communities. The first wave of closings shuttered 284 stores, and sadly more waves were to follow.

A year later, the future of Kmart would be revealed when it was announced that a group of investors, led by 38–year old billionaire Edward S. Lampert, had submitted a plan to usher Kmart out of bankruptcy. Many changes, a degree of stability and a runup in Kmart’s value would follow, and Kmart has lived to fight to this day, although the road remains challenging, to put it mildly. In November 2004, Kmart announced its intentions to buy Sears, Roebuck and Co., a most ironic twist of fate considering the companies’ arch rivalry for America’s retail crown in the 70’s and 80’s. The combined entity was named Sears Holdings Company, and eventually many Kmart executives would relocate from Kmart’s massive 70’s modern headquarters in Troy, Michigan (which is now finally being torn down -many thanks to the reader who sent this link discussing the complex's fate) to Sears (also massive and much newer) HQ in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates. From a consumer’s standpoint, a significant change has been the availability of core Sears brands in Kmart stores, including Die Hard, Kenmore and Craftsman.

The photos above are circa 1976, and show the sign and an interior from the Ionia, Michigan store, a “Group 9” store which was previously operated under another name. The third photo shows the checkouts from a new store in Oxford, Ohio. The fourth is a snack bar shot, location unknown, and the last store pictured is another Group 9 unit from Dyersburg, Tennessee. Thanks to John Flack, who has a great page on the opening of the Marlton, NJ Two Guys store, for photos 2 through 5.


  1. QUOTE-"In a mid-eighties bid to shore up their fortunes, Kmart embarked on a spree of diversified retail acquisitions (and launches, in the case of Builders Square) that would last into the next decade. The list was extensive."

    Thus the reason for the big K's downfall. Not concentrating on their main retail business. They even dabbled in the restaraunt business by acquiring (and later spinning off) Furr's Cafeterias from the(now defunct)Texas-based Furr's grocery chain.

    1. Didn't they also acquire Burger Chef for a while?

  2. Now this is the Kmart I remember well. Next to Zayre's orange and brown scheme, who could forget those turquoise colored vests the workers at Kmart had to wear? Iconic symbols indeed.

    I had read a while back that Lampert was looking on letting Martha Stewart's contract go and not renewing it at all come 2009 in order to save the compnay money I guess. Don't know what the status is now, though.

  3. Jamcool - Thanks, I didn't catch Furr's. It's a pretty long list, even without them.

    You're absolutely right, in my opinion. Their energies were spread way too thin while the core discount store business suffered.

    Didi - This story changes all the time. The latest article I read quoted Lampert as saying in effect he'd be interested in continuing the Martha Stewart line. My feeling is at the end of the day they'll meet her price rather than lose the prestige and sales, but who knows?

  4. Oh my gosh!. Man, those pics of K-Mart in the 70's really bring back some great memories. Its cool to see inside with all those people, and the check out line. Ha....Great stuff...

  5. I love the fact that the Monte Carlo pictured is missing it's lug nut covers. Just like every one that was on the road back then.

  6. Brannon - Glad you like 'em, they bring back a ton of memories for me as well.

    Thospl - And the Monte was still fairly new at the time (looks like a '73 or 4 at the oldest)! I noticed on the message board that someone described it as their dream car in high school. It was mine as well.

  7. Ahh now THIS is how I remember the K-marts of my youth.

    Pretty thorough history taking us up through present day too. It's really been long downhill slide since the 1980s.

    I for one, did not know K-mart owned Furrs Cafeterias. We had a few up here in WI, and they most likely opened up here during K-mart's ownership when they were in their aggressive "Let's buy up every last speciality segment and over-expand them."

    The first 'big box' home improvement store I stepped foot into was in fact, a Builders a former K-mart of all places.

    Looking back on things, I really do miss having K-mart around locally. While my local store was rather dated, save for the 'Big K' signage outside and a paint job inside and out, it was not as ridiculously busy as Wal-Mart, thus a quicker in-and-out if I only needed a couple things.

    I just hope Lampert isn't ultimately trying to ditch the chain. Sears is also in dire times right is really the entire retailing scene, unless it's the high-upscale/exclusive chains.

  8. Kmart... I don't know. They still haven't convinced me. It looks more Searsish now... but, there is still something I can't articulate. They just haven't figured out atmosphere, yet. Service is rather low, too. I don't know. The 70s or now, it's still the same to me.

  9. Matt - Thanks. I missed our local Kmart when it closed as well. It was super convenient when you need just a few things.

    I'm not sure ditching the chain is an option as far as a buyer is concerned , but I could see them converting more of them to a Sears-type format.

    Scott - You've kind of summed up their problems in a nutshell!

  10. I love how the K-Mart pylon sign in the first photo complete disregards the scale of the street and the surrounding built environment.

  11. I notice the employee uniforms have the "SSK" corporate logo. This logo used to appear in all the print advertising for Kresge's (and, I presume, Kmart -- oddly enough, the Canadian city where I grew up never had a Kmart, though Kresge's was ensconced downtown until the mid-80s.)

  12. DewN Nitek - They really didn't consider that sort of thing in those days, I guess!

    Geoff - The "SSK" logo was a common sight in Kmart stores and ads until 1976, when the parent company officially changed its name from S.S. Kresge Company to Kmart Corporation.

  13. I went to college in Oxford, Ohio. I remember that K-Mart. They closed it around 1990 (give or take a couple of years). The building is now a Kroger.

  14. Mobycat - I would imagine it's been heavily remodeled. Thanks!

  15. Of possible interest: a 1970 TG&Y ad on page 7 of this issue of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal:

    I originally found this link while doing storm research, but the ads within the paper tie nicely into my retail history hobby.