Friday, May 9, 2008

Kmart - That 70's Store

Ah, the seventies. An era of taste and refinement. Of subtlety and style. And no place was better to outfit that style than Kmart. I believe that these Kmart scenes from the early and mid seventies capture the essence of that era as well as any photo, retail or non-retail, that I’ve ever seen.

Up first is a great early evening photo, from 1973, of the standard seventies Kmart exterior, followed by three very busy, slightly more recent interior shots, showing a virtual sea of 70’s humanity. In the first interior photo, the snack bar can be seen at the left rear of the store. And no, that’s not Ashton Kutcher with his back to the camera, this was the real seventies. The third and fourth photos show checkout area scenes.

By the middle of the decade, one of the burning questions in retail revolved around Kmart and whether their sales would surpass those of Sears, Roebuck and Co. By late 1976, Kmart had pulled past number two JCPenney, with $100 million more in sales and 70 percent higher profits than that well respected company. Another factor that didn’t escape notice was the increasing contrast of Kmart’s success with the troubles of their direct competitors, including some big national and regional discounting names – Grants, Interstate Department Stores (Topps and White Front), Arlan’s, Mammoth Mart and National Bellas Hess, to name just a few who were either out of business by then or were in bankruptcy reorganization. Within a few years, all would be gone.

In 1974, having established Kmarts in most major markets, Kresge launched a second Kmart format which they internally called the “Group 9 stores” specifically for smaller communities who were thought to be unable to support a full-sized (average 73,000 to 96,000 square feet) Kmart. The Group 9 stores were typically in the 40,000 square feet range. Interestingly, several of the Group 9 stores were originally opened as competitors’ discount stores. Kresge was able to capitalize on the misfortunes of several chains such as those named above and convert the stores to the smaller Kmarts. In 1977, the company would change its name from S.S. Kresge Company to Kmart Corporation, an acknowledgment that over 90 percent of their sales were coming from the Kmart stores.

Here are a few video links of vintage Kmart commercials for your enjoyment. The first one comes to us courtesy of Jack, a fan of this site, who commented recently on his pilgrimage to a local Kmart, searching for remnants of the golden era. This mid-70's commercial, which has become my life’s dream to reenact, was filmed in a store that very closely resembles the one pictured above. It features about as ecstatic (and well choreographed) a reaction to a new store in town as one could possibly imagine. For the last week, I’ve been walking around the house yelling “Kmart!” at random. You’ll see why. The second one, a Christmas commercial from 1974, features the eminently singable “Kmart is your saving place” jingle in its pure original form, one that would be heard in countless alternate versions in the years that followed. The last one is from the 1980 Christmas season, part of a charming series of commercials that I remember extremely well from my youth. Sure drives home the passage of time.

28 comments:

  1. I first would like to say that this Kmart looks exactly like the one near my house in Temple City. I know it opened in the 1970's. I also realize that this design was on probably a ton of Kmarts in the US. I know the Temple City location had a Cafeteria in the back like this with the Sporting Goods next to it (it was like this all the way till they took out the cafeteria - then the sporting goods took over that area - oh and the kitchen is still there behind some drywall). Its still a Kmart today, the only thing that changed was the logo and several remodels inside.

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  2. I had an Economics professor in college who hated teh building we had class in and where his office is located. It was built in the early 70s and I recall that on the first day of class as he went over his syllabushe tried to explain exactly where his office was loacted as numbers were divided: one side of the building was odd numbered while the other was even numbered. He threw in this comment about how the building was built in the 70s "...Just like everything else from the 70s, it's backward." I laughed of course. That was long before I had developed interest and appreciation for the 70s.

    Now where are Kelso, Hyde and Fez?

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  3. Oh, and here it is today, via Live Local.

    Hmm, I even noticed the parking is the same way as in the picture!

    http://tinyurl.com/4vjzkc

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  4. Great informative post, as always! Your featured Kmart totally reminds me of the Northridge, CA Kmart, I grew up in that place! I loved when all those old cash registers would be clanking away!

    Hey, you didn't mention "Gemco" as on of Kmart’s fading competitors, was Gemco a Socal store only? I still have my mom's Gemco card somewhere....

    P.s. I did the commercial and I remember them all!

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  5. Ops, I DIG that commercial, I was was a little too young to have "did" that commerical - LOL...

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  6. All the elements are there in these photos: the long rectangular department signs with the narrow font, the yellow and brown-hued Cafeteria, the little lights that hung from the ceilings over the service counters, the gold Kmart sign at the door, even the extra long checkouts. It's a snapshot from my early childhood. I can almost smell the popcorn and 3/$1 sub sandwiches.

    The only difference was that none of the Kmarts near me looked like that on the exterior. We had the '60s era Kmarts, several old Grants stores that got taken over, and also a different '70s prototype with more windows and no arches or coach lamps. I did go to one that looked like that in the Raleigh area back when I was really little, but that's the only exposure I had to it.

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  7. Jeff - Thanks for the memories, details and link for the Temple City store. There were a great many Kmarts of this style opened in the 70's, but it 's good to see this one still operating as a Kmart. Many of the suburban Chicago locations were converted to "Sears Essentials" or are now something else altogether.

    Temple City looks like it was an interesting retail town. Ive got some Alpha Beta stuff from there I'll have to throw on here one of these days.

    Didi - Oh, they're probably lost in the crowded store. :)

    "Backward" is not an inaccurate way to describe it, but the 70's were fun in many ways. The funny thing is that a major development of the early 70's was the nostalgia craze for earlier periods in 20th century. I, for one, would have never guessed we'd be nostalgic for the 70's themselves.

    James Lileks of Lileks.com and "The American Motel" fame has a great new feature on his site where he features pages of hideous fashion from a 70's Sears catalog along with his priceless captions. Wish I'd seen it when I was doing all those Sears posts. Here's the link:

    http://www.lileks.com/institute
    /sears1973/index.html

    Tim - I didn't include Gemco (or their east coast/midwest cousin Memco) because they were still going fairly strong at the time. Their parent company, Lucky Stores, was still doing well with them.

    Congrats on the commercial gig!
    ...Oh, wait, never mind! :)

    Steven - I agree, they show it all. You're the second person to mention the 3 for $1 subs. Can't believe I missed those! The sixties store you mentioned probably resembles the exterior pic from the previous post, I would guess.

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  8. Dave: Yeah, the '60s Kmarts near me were nearly identical to the ones you showed in earlier posts. I'm sure you have a picture of the other '70s prototype I mentioned earlier as well. They sure built a lot of them :-)

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  9. Thanks for the shoutout. Just got home from being in Birmingham with my girlfriend over the weekend. Lots of remnants of old retail in that city. I even remarked at how well preserved the 70s are in that city. Regardless, these are great photos and look just like the Kmart I grew up with in Peoria, Illinois as a child. Thanks again!

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  10. Mr. Blue Light SpecialMay 12, 2008 at 2:46 PM

    Yes, I agree all the Kmart's looked that same back in the '70's. I live in San Francisco Bay Area and visited many of the stores back then. The snack bar 'The Grille' was identical looking until they remodeled the store sometime in the 1990's. I actually worked for Newark, Ca store (Kmart #3010) in 1985-1986 and did many of the 'blue light specials' for the Mens Wear Dept!! Hey remember "TRAX" shoes??!?! We used to be paged by the dept# "K-10 to the service desk" for the womens dept. k-14 for infants, K-11 for menswear, etc. They would keep inventory for apparel by tearing off the bottom part of the tag and placed in slots at the check outs. The store is closed now and built a Home Depot!

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  11. mr. blue light specialMay 13, 2008 at 2:15 PM

    Kmart also sold lumber, hardware (Top Bench) and building supplies. The store I worked for had a huge room in the back for lumber. Also sold birds and fish in the pet supplies dept. Televisions and radios w/ the "KMC" brand label. The store would have "Moonlight Madness Sales" open until midnight on a weekday to pump up sales volume.

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  12. Thanks for the link, Dave. i have to check out the hideous fashion. :o)

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  13. My grandma or aunt had a picture of my cousin wearing that seafoam color kmart jacket...she's been with kmart now for 30 yrs.

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  14. Steven - I wonder if the other format you're referring to is similar to the Dyersburg store in the most recent (and last, for now)Kmart post.

    Jack - No problem, and thanks again for the heads up on that classic!

    Mr. Blue Light - Thanks for sharing your Kmart memories, that's cool you got to literally be "Mr. Blue Light Special"! I sure do remember the "KMC" electronics. And the Trax shoes as well, although I never owned a pair. I was saving my owned hard-earned money to spring for Nikes at the time, when they were $20 a pair!
    Where I lived (suburban Chicago), some of the snack bars were called "The Eatery".

    Didi - You won't be disappointed.

    Amanda - I always wanted to know what color "seafoam" was. Now I'll forever associate it with Kmart!

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  15. Dave: The '70s prototype I mentioned was indeed similar to the Dyersburg location, but it was articulated a little better architecturally. These were full sized stores with aesthetics halfway between the ones you showed n this post and the Dyersburg store. I don't have a picture, but it was built a lot.

    I had a KMC TV for years. I got it used, repaired it once and it's still going strong in the basement.

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  16. Steven - I agree the Dyersburg store wasn't one of the nicer looking store designs.

    Speaking of KMC, I had an old Kmart radio in my office in the early 90's that I "inherited" from my predecessor that had to be 20 years old then. I had to situate the power cord a certain way to even get it to work, but I used it for years. It was almost like an office mascot, so uncool it was cool! :)

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  17. Well done on the articles!
    I wish I could capture that smell of popcorn when I walked through the doors in the 70s. Only to be completed by an Icee (was it Icee or the competition?)
    Scott

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  18. Scott- Thanks very much,and I believe they were Icees. I feel the same way about the smell of Sears stores back in the day.

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  19. The link to the 70's commercial has gone bad. Here's a better one:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDKVLyRt0jQ

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  20. Anonymous - I've replaced the link. Thanks for the heads up on that!

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  21. I just came upon your site randomly and was pulled into an incredible time warp when I saw those K-Mart photos. Holy cow do I remember when K-Marts looked like this -- the "GRILL," the massive crowds, the teal-blue jumpsuits the clerks wore, and the night shot with the little merry-go-round by the front entrance all spelled "SHOPPING FUN" to me as a kid in the 70s. I used to love going to K-Mart with my mom and dad after church on Sundays. It was just THE thing to do! Good times and great memories!!

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  22. Oooh I just read through the comments and had just a couple more memories about K-Mart in the 70s... ICEE! Oh my LORD my sister and I would bug our Mom INCESSANTLY about getting us ICEEs! I can still taste the Blue Raspberry ones now, mixed with the smell of hot dogs and nachos from the snack counter.

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  23. Rick - Thanks for sharing your memories - it's amazing how many of us remember Kmart fondly. And I had no idea how much the food there stood out in people's minds until reading these comments!

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  24. The kmart exterior looks very similar to the style to the store located in Santa Clarita which opened in the early 70s, complete with the merry-go-round out front.

    The store is still in operation today and the exterior has never been remodeled with the exception of the logo changing. The Live Local link has the Big K logo on the store but has been changed I believe to the new logo. The store was remodeled a couple years ago after Kmart and Sears merged bringing the store to a red decor inside. Although the floor tiles are still the same and look like the original floor.

    http://maps.live.com/default.aspx?v=2&FORM=LMLTCP&cp=pr3b7753n6xr&style=b&lvl=1&tilt=-90&dir=0&alt=-1000&scene=6621061&phx=0&phy=0&phscl=1&encType=1

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  25. McHunter - Thanks for sharing that info on the Santa Clarita store. This was a very typical Kmart prototype for the early 70's, and several still exist.

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  26. I love that old K-Mart logo! From my childhood. That's how I will always remember K-mart!

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  27. Tom - I love it too! I think discontinuing it turned out to be a huge mistake, in retrospect.

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  28. Remember TYFSAK!

    I had an after-school job at K-Mart for about 2 years back in the early 80s and it was a great place to work. I started out doing basic stocking and ended up mostly working the Garden Shop.

    My parents moved to Richmond, VA (from Roanoke Rapids, NC) and I got my manager to give me a recommendation to work at the nearest store in Richmond the summer after high-school and they hired me and gave me more responsibility in the Garden Shop, including ringing up customers.

    I think everyone should have some retail experience as part of their careers. I've been a professional software developer for over 20 years, but I still have fond memories of working at K-Mart and feel it was a valuable part of my education.

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