Today marks a key milestone in retailing history – the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first Kmart store, in Garden City, Michigan, pictured above shortly after its opening in a photo from “The S.S. Kresge Story”, a 1979 book by the company founder’s son, Stanley S. Kresge. This store still exists, albeit in extensively remodeled form.
By any measure, 1962 was the Year of the Discount Store. Two months later, on May 1, the first Target store opened in Roseville, Minnesota, and two months after that, on July 2, came the first Walmart in Rogers, Arkansas. Thus the stage was set for a key part of the retail drama that continues to play out today.
Others were launched that year as well, among them Big K, a Nashville-based chain that gained a decent foothold in the Mid-South before being absorbed by Wal-Mart in 1981. And of course there was Woolco, the discount division of F.W. Woolworth, which might have enjoyed Kmart-like success had Woolworth been willing to burn the ships the way the S.S. Kresge Company was.
The troubles of their last twenty years or so have made it increasingly hard to remember when the phrase “Kmart-like success” was a compliment of the highest order, but from the chain’s earliest years through the 1980’s, it most certainly was. For decades, while fellow ’62 travelers Target and Walmart remained barely known outside of their home turf, Kmart smashed sales records nationwide, and communities far and wide clamored for a new Kmart store in their neck of the woods. They turned the retail world upside down, ultimately toppling the thought-to-be unassailable Sears, Roebuck and Co. from its number-one retailer perch in 1986. Now, sadly, the two retailers commiserate under the same ownership, like two old vaudeville performers searching for an audience in the television age.
Yet what a fascinating business story it was (one I attempted to cover in a series of posts here a few years ago), right from its inception in the late 1950’s, when the brilliant Kresge manager Harry Cunningham set out to explore new business directions for the company. Kresge was early to key in on the coming decline of the “old five and ten”, and upon Cunningham’s visits to some of the early discounters (the New England area “mill stores” in particular), a new direction was set. To their credit, Kresge (meaning Cunningham and his team, with the blessing of 90-plus year old S.S. Kresge himself) pursued the Kmart program relentlessly, despite criticism, as if the company’s future depended on it - which it did.
In a multitude of ways, from large concepts to small details, Kmart served as the model for Walmart, and Sam Walton was always quick to credit Cunningham’s genius in the formation of his own company. In later years it became a mutual admiration society, with the then-retired Cunningham heaping praise on Walmart’s accomplishments while comparing his old company’s latter day performance to them in an unflattering light. Ironically, both men passed away in 1992. Twenty years later, of course, Kmart struggles for its very existence, while its “pupil”, so to speak, is the largest retailer (and second largest company) in the world.
But oh, what memories it holds for so many of us – the “Bluelight mobile unit”, a little cart with a pole-mounted flashing blue light, which seemed to make an appearance nearly every time we shopped there. (“C’mon Dad, they’re selling vacuum cleaners for 20% off!”) The Icees, the hideously painted cafeterias, the little gold, red and aqua shields on Kmart store-branded products. The yellow “Key” department price stickers and the “Remember – TYFSAK” stickers on the cash registers. And for me, my Grandmother’s “Focal” brand camera case, from which she would whip out the Kodak 126 Instamatic and Sylvania flashcubes (before my Dad bought her a Polaroid OneStep SX-70 sometime in the mid-70’s) at the slightest prompting.
So if you would, allow me to suggest this – if you live near a Kmart, why not run over there this evening and buy something, and while you’re at it, wish the checker a “Happy 50th Anniversary”? They probably won’t have a clue what you’re talking about (it’s gone unobserved on the Kmart website) (Note 3/20/12: I've since learned that Kmart did feature a post with the photo above on their Facebook page that day. History survives!), but you’ll feel good about it. If I still had one near me, I would!