Thursday, March 1, 2012

March 1, 1962 - The First Kmart Opens

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!

25 comments:

  1. I do have a Kmart near me and I would be lucky if the folks who worked there knew what a lawnmower was much less when their anniversary is. A couple my husband asked a girl there if they had any and she gave him a some puzzled look.

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  2. I type to fast. Wanted to correct.

    I do have a Kmart near me and I would be lucky if the folks who worked there knew what a lawnmower was much less when their anniversary is. A couple of years ago my husband asked a girl there if they had any and she gave him a somewhat puzzled look. This was in May!

    Happy anniversary, Kmart. We still love you.

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  3. Happy 50th Anniversary, Kmart! I hope you and Sears find a competent leader and will not perish simultaneously.

    P.S.: The Super Kmarts were great.

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  4. I would be happy to wish the employees of my local Kmart a happy 50th anniversary if they weren't too busy with the store closing sale.

    It makes me sad as a whole, but locally, our Kmart has devolved into high prices on otherwise cheap stuff and awful service.

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  5. Kmart will always be a part of my memories thanks to numerous trips back in the 80s. Also, my first job was at a Kmart back in 1997.

    It's sad to note that their 50th anniversary occurred the day after a new round of closings were announced. I don't want to see Kmart and Sears vanish, but it looks increasingly likely.

    That picture is cool. I've never seen a Kmart sign on a frame before.

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  6. Being a true retail geek, I took a day trip out to the Garden City store today to celebrate the 50th anniversary.

    In fact, there actually was a celebration. They had a 50th anniversary cake bearing the original Kmart logo and the red and turquoise colors.

    The team there welcomed me to the celebration like I was part of the family. Special thanks to Rosa, Pat and Peggy and everyone else who made it something to remember.

    The "official" celebration will be at the Garden City store April 21, 2012. The mayor and other executives are supposed to be in attendance. They chose to do the official celebration in April since the weather in early March is both cold and unpredictable.

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  7. Ah, Kmart. We went to Kmart a lot when I was a youngster, but also to Wal-Mart. Things were MUCH different in the 1970s & 1980s, as you point out. Back then, Wal-Mart used a "Discount City" format for their stores. They were often poorly lit, chintzy, and were sort of the epitome of the down-market retailer. Kmarts were pretty chintzy themselves, but they were much better lit, cleaner, more spacious, more up-to-date. I too remember the red/teal/gold logo and the yellow department "key" things.

    I was in a Kmart just recently. This one was a former Venture store, and the place was very low on customers. It was far understaffed, and the merchandise, much of it anyway, just looked cheap and tired. Venture went out, what, in 1997 or 1998. The store was actually revamped soon before it closed. But this Kmart is so dated that it looks like Kmart actually managed to take it BACK in time, if you can imagine that. From where I stand, Kmart seems almost pathetic and on its last legs. Nowadays, Walmart is the spacious store, the well lit store, the up-to-date store. Times have changed.

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  8. My Great Grandfather and Grandfather were friends of the Kresge's and are mentioned in the book. We have a signed copy of the book as well. A shame what has happened to this company. Scary to think both Sears and Kmart could be gone shortly.

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  9. Wow, great history - we have a post on the history of Super Kmart Centers http://superkmart.blogspot.com/

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  10. I don't really have a Kmart nearby; the one we had is still essentially an empty box as it works it's way through post-Hurricane Irene recovery.

    The next-nearest one is a combination Kmart Sears store, which seems to have found the magical combination of the least useful parts of each.

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  11. I still have a K Mart near me and I went there Friday night and bought a 6-outlet power strip. I counted exactly four cars in the parking lot including mine. The store is safe for now but in 2013 my Sears--in a dying mall--will be closing.

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  12. I have a bad feeling that the lone Kmart near me will be one of the ones that gets closed in the next round of downsizing. It's hasn't been upgraded since the 1980s, is rarely busy, and just doesn't fit into the demographic of the area anymore. If I'm right, it will be a sad day as I shudder having to then make the choice for that type of shopping between the antiseptic sterility of Target and the dirty chaos of Wal-Mart.

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  13. Don't know if they still do but dang they had the best popcorn at the snack shop.

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  14. The Kmart near my house has been gone for years (as well as all of the stores in the Houston area). It's a grocery store now. I remember the wonderful submarine type sandwiches at the snack bar. My Dad took me to get one of those shortly after I had braces put on. It was the last solid meal I ate for several days because my teeth hurt so much. They had a really good automotive department for a long time and my Dad got most of his oil change supplies there (he was a do-it yourselfer). I also bought quite a few Atari 2600 games there as well as casette tapes (I remember they had a section with discount tapes - I think I bought Surf Punks (my beach) for $1.99 or something like that) back in the late '80s.

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  15. The last K-mart I ever saw with it's original logo was the one in Lombard Il.

    Better than the currents one.

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  16. By the time they geared up for K-Mart, discounting had progressed beyond the old mill stores and there were regional chains like offering full-line selections. Zayre and Topps beat them to many places.

    K-Mart and some of the other stores of its generation had the advantage of being able to leverage existing relationships with name brand suppliers. Earlier discounters often had limited access to name brand merchandise and often bought through "grey market" channels or were offered off brands like GE's Universal line of small appliances. Ironically, K-Mart went from emphasizing name brands in the beginning to selling a lot of cheaply made house brand merchandise, which was part of their early decline. K-Mart and its bretheren learned from early chains' move from reusing industrial or other spaces (e.g., barns, skating rinks, etc). to more standardized layouts in purpose built sites.

    K-Mart itself was not always all that welcome. Growing up in the Cleveland area, they were considered almost on a par with Zayre, but better than the pioneering but outdated local Giant Tiger chain. The local Uncle Bill's chain which started with very humble operations (some kept going for years) and the later fancier Gold Circle were considered better stores. New K-Marts came to be fought by local residents by the 70s.

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  17. I'm not that much of a shopper anymore, but I do try to shop Sears and Kmart first when I do. As a Chicago city resident I appreciate Sears keeping its urban stores in Ravenswood and Portage Park open, they are a welcome convenience.

    I have noticed that the city locations seem to enjoy better business than some Sears mall locations I have been to.

    The urban Kmarts are another story, one is walking distance for me, and while I would hate to lose it, I also find myself walking there and walking back to my car to drive to the nearest Target. It is FAR better under Sears Holdings that it was when I first moved to the area, it is cleaner and better organized, but the stock is not that great.

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  18. Just seeing that photo brings back Kmart memories from back in the day when they were a viable company. Walking in the door past the line of people at the service desk waiting to get their checks approved (before they shop?), the snack counter with the chopped ham sandwiches, the general mayhem of the crowds, and worst of all getting to hear all the annoying Kmart ads being played over the PA system.

    My local ex Kmart and current Sears is going to close soon, leaving a dated building in the middle of a HUGE parking lot. I have tried to feel the love for Sears, other than tools I just can't do it. Maybe it was the cashier hassling me to open a charge account when all I was in there for was a 6-pack of Pepsi, maybe it was the general ambience of the store. It still looked like a Kmart that was stocked with Sears stuff. With a Target nearby and a Walmart even closer, this one was doomed from the start.

    Sad.

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  19. Many memories as a kid in the 1970's spending a weekend day with the parents in Kmart. Way before we ever heard of Target or Wal-Mart here in the San Francisco Bay Area Kmart had many locations. I also have admiration for the Newark, CA (store 3010) since it was my first retail job during high school. Funny thing I recall was being paid cash with a pay stub sealed in an envelope for my salary! I worked for the Apparel dept which at the time was a lease company that managed all the clothing lines (Holly Group) which was Depts K-10 womens and K-11 mens. The merchandise also had tear-off tags that would be collected at check outs for inventory purposes. The store is gone now, since the 1990's. Replaced by a Home Depot. The only one I know in this area is in Hayward, CA

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  20. The K-Mart that I used to go to with my family has been closed for close to 10 years now. I have so many fond memories of that store. It had the best snack bar with yummy fried potatoes and hot dogs. I remember always looking at the toys. Oh and my sister and I were fascinated by the wig department lol. I will definitely stop by the only remaining K-Mart in my city even though it is out of my way. I would be so sad if they closed too!

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  21. Kmart came to south Winnipeg around 1966 or '67 at the Southdale shopping centre. For years, they (and later, Woolco) were the only stores open on Saturday night so my parents used to take us there to look around. TYFSAK became a running joke in our house to the point that years later, on my first ever shift working at Safeway, I finished a courtesy carryout by ALMOST giving the customer a TYFSAK, but I quickly caught myself and changed it to "Thank you for shopping....uh...with us."

    In the early 90's, I was a TV reporter in Yorkton, SK. One day, over the police scanner, comes the dispatcher asking someone else whether any units were "attending at Kmart?". Apparently someone had mistaken the Blue Light Special beacon for the dome light on a cruiser. That confirmation came over the scanner a few minutes later.

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  22. (Part One) WOW! Where do I start? Both of my parents retired from K-Mart. Of course they both started with S.S.Kresge. My mom worked 7 years at Kresge, then took 3 years off to have me and get me going, she then went to work at the "new" K-Mart in 1964.

    Needless to say I spent a lot of time in K-Mart in the late sixties and early seventies.

    Coming in the front door you were greeted by a greeter/security guard, their job was to monitor the front doors, greet customers, and staple any bags coming back into the store, and giving directions to the customer.

    Next you encountered the smells of freshly popped popcorn and warm nuts at the "deli", where they sold popcorn,nuts,candy, and submarine sandwiches for 48 cents. They would also run specials on the subs 4 for $1...and sometimes blue-light them as well.
    On the back side of the deli was a full range tobacco shop including cigarettes,cigars,pipes and pipe tobacco.

    Someone mentioned Focal, I can remember a fully stocked photo department including 35mm SLR cameras, point and shoot,movie cameras,projectors,8mm movies, telescopes and scores of other goodies, not to mention scads of film, film processing and so on.

    A toy department to die for...I remember when Hot Wheels came out in 68...Mom worked in the toy dept..a dream come true.
    Passing by "domestics" with huge displays of fabric and patterns one came upon the "Snack Bar"...oh what a treat. My favorite, grilled cheese with a Sprite. My dad was never happy about paying for a grilled cheese but always gave in. There were certain customers who ate at the snack bar numerous times weekly.

    Right next door to the snack bar was the sporting goods department. Fishing,golf,bowling,hunting,baseball,football, and guns...lots of guns. It was a small sporting goods store inside a store.

    Then automotive...with all things automotive and a full service garage. Tires,batteries,radios,hot rod stuff,oil,grease,gadgets,you name it.

    Shoes was across the aisle from automotive....at that time the shoe department was a consignment department. The shoes and the employees did not belong to K-Mart, they had to abide by the K-Mart rules but worked for a separate company.

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  23. (Part Two)Around the corner from shoes was the lawn and garden/patio area and the coveted pet department. Boy did they have pets....fish,turtles,newts,hamsters,guinea pigs, and the crown jewel Norma the monkey....yes a monkey.

    The clothing areas really didn't do much for me. However, I do remember a former mayor of Flint working in the men's department. Yes at that time, K-Mart had many young people in their employee but a large part of the work force were mature adults, late 30s to late 60s.

    My next department of interest was the "record" department. Rows and rows of albums,8-tracks, and reel-to-reel music. Many,many times I would save my allowance for a couple of weeks and go directly to the record department and buy an Elvis album.

    Then the famed "electronics" department. They had all the cool stuff...tvs,radios,stereos,cb radios, and a plethora of gadgets.
    In the sixties and very early seventies there was a half wall between K-Mart and the K-Mart grocery right next door. Unfortunately with the decrease of morals and the increase of crime it was too easy to pass a tv over the half wall to an awaiting accomplice on the grocery side. My the sixties still had an air of innocence.

    Right next door to electronics was the lay-away desk. What a concept, and one that people enjoyed and used. Of course with the advent of the credit card it decrease in popularity...and K-Mart had it's own credit card at one time back in the day.
    Down the aisle from lay-away was the "office" area.....someone mentioned that they were paid in cash. That is a fact...little brown envelopes with one's pay in cash and all the earnings and deductions handwritten inside the flap of the envelope. In fact when I started at Sears in 1979 my mom was still being paid in cash.

    I almost forgot....the "Blue Light" it was a hokey little contraption but what a gimmick. They would roll around this little cart with a blue flashing light and a manager and an associate would re-ticket the merchandise, of course while someone wailed away on the PA telling what a great deal it was that they were selling.

    As you can tell I have many fond memories of K-Mart. Also, they did do some ground breaking things in retailing. The all in one
    format including groceries, credit, lay-away and so on.

    Thanks for the memories K-Mart.

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  24. (Part Three)I grew up in Flint, MI. My folks came from Arkansas. My dad couldn't handle the grind of assembly line work in GM, so he wound up at Kresge or as it was back in the day S.S. Kresge. So, my dad worked in a newer Kresge and my mom in an older one.

    As I mentioned my mom took a few years off when I was born and went back to work at K-Mart in 1964. I think it was the third one in our area. After getting up a little older I can remember me and my dad taking my mom to work at K-Mart, then picking her up at the end of her shift, she worked 6pm-10pm and usually longer on Fridays and Saturdays.

    On Friday evenings and Saturday evenings that store rocked. They really pumped out the sales, of course the competition wasn't nearly as stiff. It was the go to place. Before Meijer and WalMart, it rocked. Arlans, Woolco, and Yankees were never really any competition for whatever reason.

    I could go on and on. One quick one, I remember a band of outlaw bikers took the store over on a Sunday. They were riding their hogs thru the store, shot a security guard, and had to be removed by the Sheriff's department after a lengthy stand-off. That seems surreal but it really happened. My dad was a nervous wreck until the all clear was given. Hey that's what makes life interesting.

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  25. Actually, there was a Kmart that opened in March 2012, sort of. By "sort of" it had converted to an experimental Sears in 2007-2008 (http://www.kmartworld.com/2012/03/spotlight-part-1-of-2-sears-to-kmart.html) and has converted back to a Kmart.

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