Well, Big K, we hardly knew ye, and now you’re leaving us again. That’s right, the many Kmart stores which for some not well-explained reason took on the “Big K Mart” identity in the mid-90’s are being restored (thankfully) back to just “Kmart”, with a logo closer to their original 1960’s look, albeit with a single color, red. And a familiar sight to many Kroger shoppers is their age-old “Big K” private label brand, probably best recognized in recent decades on their soft drinks, but we’ll talk about that later.
Aside from these, however, was a Mid-South based chain by the name of Big K, which enjoyed a good deal of success as a regional discount store operation in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Big K was a division of Nashville-based Kuhn Brothers Company, Inc., which was founded as a variety store chain in the teens. The information I’ve been able to find about the Kuhn stores, which unfortunately is minimal, indicates that that they were very much cast in the standard Woolworth/Kresge variety store mold. As such they faced similar problems as those firms did in the fifties –footprints too small to accommodate a growing range of popular consumer goods, rising operating costs of counter service as opposed to self service, and most importantly the decline of downtown business districts with the advent of shopping centers with their vast availability of free parking.
In 1962, that historic year for the discount industry, Kuhn’s launched the first of their Big K discount department stores. Kuhn’s employed a strategy similar to Wal-Mart, opening the Big K stores in small-to-medium sized towns within a four-state market area – in their case Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. Like Wal-Mart, they avoided the larger markets which were likely to be heavily populated with Kmart stores, as Atlanta most certainly was. Kuhn’s-Big K , as the company was renamed, would eventually adjoin the Wal-Mart market area, but there was very little overlap. The Kuhn family and Sam Walton, who were acquaintances, had chosen (for a time at least) to honor an old unwritten code between regional retailers to stay of each others’ territories. Of course another unwritten code, every bit as popular as the first, was to scrap the previous code and build right in your fellow retailer’s backyard. When Wal-Mart opened a store in Jackson, Tennessee, the heart of Big K-land, The Kuhns retaliated by opening stores in West Helena and Blytheville, Arkansas.
By the end of 1973, the company operated 57 Big K’s and 27 Kuhn’s Variety Stores, and had pushed into eastern Arkansas and Missouri, Wal-Mart’s operating area. The Big K stores carried the standard discount store mix of apparel, sporting goods, hardware, toys, etc., and averaged 45,000 square feet. There were three larger stores (65,000-75,000 square feet) ringing the Nashville area, the company’s home turf. In 1977, Kuhn’s-Big K moved into the South Carolina region with its acquisition of Edwards, Inc., a Charleston-based chain of 33 stores in South Carolina.
Soon after the Edwards purchase, the Kuhn’s - Big K operation spun into decline, losing money and experiencing management turmoil. In 1981, Chain Store Age characterized the company as “a broken chain”, citing increasingly intense competition, the strain from the Edwards acquisition and cost overruns on the company’s fancy new Nashville headquarters complex. The magazine was also critical of the Kuhn family’s management approach. Predictions of Big K’s demise were aflight.
Discussions regarding a possible acquisition by Wal-Mart had begun some months before the Chain Store Age article appeared. Wal-Mart, traditionally committed to internal growth, had only one major acquisition under its belt at the time, having purchased the 21-store Mohr Value chain, an Illinois operation, in 1977. When it became evident that Big K would be forced to sell out, the ideal store sizes (directly in line with Wal-Mart’s at the time), respectable customer base, and most of all the chain’s prime locations in new, adjoining territory made the proposition too powerful to resist. Even so, Wal-Mart’s board of directors was split down the middle over the idea. Sam cast the deciding vote in favor of the buyout, and the deal was done. Incidentally, Wal-Mart’s indecision over the buyout paid another dividend – as they hemmed and hawed over the prospect, the value of Big K’s stock continued to fall. The initial purchase price, according to the Wall Street Journal was $17 million in December 1980. By the following June it was $12.9 million, and by the time of the actual buyout in December 1981, it was $7 million - $2 million less than Kuhn’s -Big K had paid for the Edwards chain four years earlier. Sort of gives a new, unwanted meaning to the word “discount”.
The first photo, location unknown, is from 1973. The second and third photos are from the Dickson, Tennessee store and were taken the following year.