Monday, April 21, 2008

S.S. Kresge's Pre-K Days

Before discount stores popped up all across America, there were the variety stores. For decades, Middle America shopped at these stores for their basic needs – housewares and kitchen items, linens, basic clothing, shoes, school supplies, toys and so on. Most of the larger variety chains had their origin in the decades immediately preceding or following the beginning of the 20th century. They were fittingly known as “5 and 10 cent stores” in the early days, for the simple reason that most products sold for one of those two price points. Even as late as the early sixties, when the chains had long since begun carrying higher priced items, they were still popularly referred to as “dime stores”. Until well into the 1940’s, they were almost exclusively found in downtown locations, with shopping center locations slowly becoming part of the mix from that point on. Many variety stores had snack bars or luncheonettes. The chains’ stores had a similar look, especially from the exterior, with the signage style for a number of them virtually the same (until the early 1950’s at least)– a narrow, red sign across the full width of the storefront, with gold or silver serif lettering. Even many of the store names followed a recognizable pattern – F.W. Woolworth, J.J. Newberry, W.T. Grant, S.H. Kress, G.C. Murphy and…. S.S. Kresge.

S.S. Kresge Company, based in Detroit and officially founded in 1911 by Sebastian Spering Kresge, was the number three variety chain in the US at the dawn of the sixties, behind F.W. Woolworth and W.T. Grant. At the end of 1960, Kresge had 759 variety stores, mostly located in the Midwest and Eastern states. The company’s first stores in California wouldn’t even open until 1961, and their presence in the growing Southern states at this point was minimal at best. By all appearances, Kresge was a staid, conservative, regional retailer, expanding at a relatively steady, deliberate pace.

Behind the scenes, however, an exciting development was taking place at Kresge. Faced with the same challenges that were affecting the variety store category as a whole – declining profitability, increased labor costs, stores that were becoming too old, too small and too urban, and impacted by the success of upstart discounters such as E.J. Korvette, Kresge embarked on a plan to scope out the discount industry for themselves.

In 1957, Harry B. Cunningham, the energetic 50-year old head of sales for Kresge embarked on a new mission, one that would take him all over the country over the next two years. Cunningham was placed in charge of a project to explore the discount industry up close, visiting stores, taking note of what worked and what didn’t with an eye toward Kresge’s own entrance into the discount store business. Cunningham liked the potential he saw, and the initial plans and strategies began to come together. In March 1961, with Cunningham now at the helm of the company, the decision was made to go full steam ahead with “Kmart”, Kresge’s discount store concept.

To coincide with this, the decision was made to accelerate closing of many of the older, outmoded Kresge stores. In a number of cases, Kresge was locked into long-term leases on these older, less than desirable locations, so a third store format was devised to make use of those stores. Those Kresge stores would be converted to “Jupiter” stores, a bare-bones discount operation specializing in a limited line of high-demand, basic goods at deep discount prices. Robert Drew-Bear, in his excellent book “Mass Merchandising” cites that the Jupiter format “made it possible to move items such as price-maintained men’s underwear with extreme speed, whereas the same line barely moved as a (Kresge) store item”.

On January 25, 1962, the first store under the Kmart name opened, one that was generally thought of as a “test” Kmart in California’s San Fernando Valley, a store of only 24,000 square feet. The first “official” Kmart, a 60,000 square foot store, opened in the Detroit suburb of Garden City, Michigan on March 1 of that year. By the end of 1962, 18 Kmarts would be in operation.

It was an impressive start for an initiative that would profoundly change the S.S. Kresge Company and indeed American retailing in general. Within a few short years, the Kmart stores would leave not only Kresge’s variety store competition, including Woolworths and Grants, in the proverbial dust, but a good number of other retailers as well.

The first artist’s rendering is of the Kresge store at Pontiac Mall (later Summit Place Mall) of Pontiac, Michigan and dates from 1960. The second one, in color, is from an unknown location, 1959. Below is the Kresge store located at Winrock Center, in Albuquerque New Mexico, from 1961 along with renderings of the new formats - Jupiter and Kmart, from the same year.
Note: Thanks to the anonymous commenter who was kind enough to provide us a link to some vintage 1964 Kresge store "mood music" - Fantastic!


  1. What a rich history! The renderings look like drawings on this board game I have called Mall Madness. LOL

  2. I remember Jupiter being advertised in the early-80's but no later. I think I only saw one Jupiter ever, a downtown location that likely began as an S.S. Kresge. Being from the South, KMart's emergence dwarfed Kresge's footprint. McCrory, Murphy, Grant's, and Woolworth's all outnumbered Kresge with about an even pace with Kress and Rose's which would later morph into a discount store.

    Amazingly Wal-Mart, Target and KMart all began in 1962. Woolworth would launch Woolco, Grant's started Grant City, and Murphy added MurphyMart to the fray. KMart has outlasted its "dime store" peers discount entries.
    In Canada, Woolco would outlast KMart which sold out to Zeller's with a "Targetesque" approach to discounting while Woolco survived a few years longer, over decade longer than here in the US, selling to Wal-Mart, providing the Bentonville Behemoth with an entry north of the border.

  3. Your blog is very cool! This entry reminds me of my 1960s childhood in Connecticut. We had a stretch of road called "the Magic Mile" with most of the big stores of the day. My family were die-hard Kresge and Bradlees shoppers (they were next to each other in the "Mart" section of the "Mile"). The "Plaza" section of the "Mile" had more exotic stores like Lafayette, Penny's and Pier One. But Kresge's was the best store of all. Please keep up the good work on your blog. BTW, I have a blog about eccentric roadtrips. If you care to check it out here's the address: (I put a link to your site!)
    Gunnar Johnson

  4. Didi- These are some of the best renderings I've ever run across. Much more detailed and accurate than the norm, although I like the funkier, more abstract style that was sometimes seen from that era as well.

    Anonymous - That had to be at the tail end of the Jupiters' run. it is interesting how a lot of the variety chains jumped into discounting around the same time. Kresge certainly did it more effectively and aggressively than anyone else at that time. You may be aware that W.T. Grant actually owned a majority interest in Zellers at one time. The Murphy Marts were cool, and often paired with a Giant Eagle or an Acme Market, depending on the location.
    Thanks for the comment!

    Gunnar and Sherry - Thanks, and I'll add a link to your site as well. It's very entertaining! I notice that you live in Rhode Island, a great state. My grandparents lived there, and as a side note, the only Jupiter store I was ever in (around 1970) was the former Kresge in Woonsocket, RI. I'm also a big fan of coffee milk and clam cakes!

  5. Here is some Kresge store music!

  6. Excellent, elegant renderings!

    Although I understand Kresge had some stores in Virgina (Fredericksburg comes to mind), the western part of the state never had any. This was a big market for Roses, Woolworth, Murphy's and Grant's, with the occasional Kress.

    We do have a lot of old Kmarts in my neck of the woods, mostly from the initial '60s expansion (the still-open Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Danville stores date from 1964). I think we got a lot of Kmarts because this was virgin territory for Kresge, which makes sense.

  7. Super post, love the history. Thank you so much for sharing all this great information.

    Do you know where in the San Fernando Valley that first "test" Kmart was located?


  8. my grandma still laments over the disappearance of the '5&10' as she called them...we had McCrory's in TomsRiver NJ, HL Greens in Brick, NJ (brick plaza) Point Plesant Beach had FW Woolworth and Asbury Park had an insanely huge NewBerry. There was something called a Zelby's in Lakewood.

    I remember the little lunch counters with the hot dogs and cokes and you popped a balloon and you got a sundae or banana split for whatever the price was on the paper in the balloon.

    The Woolworth had the wooden floors and smelled like circus peanut candies.

  9. I love the blog!!!
    Could you add my link as well:)

  10. Anonymous - Thanks very much for that great Kresge store music link! I wouldn't have wanted to be the one who had to flip that record over every 20 minutes!

    Steven - I agree, they're first class, but I also really like the cruder style used in that great Cotswold brochure you posted.

    Was Roses considered a variety store in the same sense as those others you mentioned? I believe your theory on the Virginia Kmarts is on target (no pun intended), Kresge had very little prior to the 60's in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states, and decided to put their best foot forward when they finally entered those markets.

    Tim - I think it was actually in the city of San Fernando. Sorry I don't have an actual address at this point for it, though.

    Amanda - Great stories about the balloons and the Woolworth floors, thanks! The smells were some of the best things about those stores. And I really should have listed H.L Green in the post along with others you mentioned.

    Charles - I'd be glad to! Can you send me the link?


  12. Dave: Roses had at least three distinct faces before it became the store it is today.

    There were the downtown and early suburban dime stores, which held on into the 1980s, and were first called Roses, but were later rebranded P.H. Rose before they were sold to Variety Wholesalers.

    Then there were the Roses discount stores, which popped up in the 1960s as larger versions of the variety stores, but evolved into a distinct, slightly more upscale concept.

    By the mid-'70s, Roses management had focused on growing the discount stores, and nearly every store built from 1975 to 1995 followed the general concept.

    When Roses filed bankruptcy, the renaming discount stores also went to Variety Wholesalers, and devolved to something akin to the P.H. Rose stores.

    A concept that's almost been forgotten from Roses' history was a small chain of department stores called Paul Rose. Paul Rose stores were a lot like what Roses discount stores became, but were a big change from Roses variety stores.

    The stores were markedly more upscale than Roses other operations, but still not quite the department stores they tried to emulate. Paul Rose never grew beyond a couple dozen locations, but lessons learned were integrated into Roses discount stores.

  13. Steven - Thanks for that excellent, detailed recap. I had thought of the regular "Roses" stores more as a department store in a "junior Belk" mode, but it seems that they've tended towards a discount format through more of their history.

  14. Based on a search of the LA Times archive database, the San Fernando store was located at Rinaldi and Laurel Canyon. I'm guessing that it's currently the Didi's Discounts. There is an independent grocery store in that center which is a former Safeway.

    I live in Granada Hills and a retail history buff and I'm at that intersection all the time, but I had no idea there was a Kmart there or that it was the first test store.

  15. Chad - Thanks very much for providing the store address! it's understandable that you (and probably most other folks in the area, unless they're very longtime residents and pushing 60 years old or older) didn't know it was a Kmart, given the extremely small footprint of the store.

  16. Thank you for the Kresge store recordings!

  17. Anonymous - Thanks to our anonymous poster for those. They're great, aren't they?

  18. In 1908 S. S. Kresge may have entered into an agreement with H. G. Woolworth of NY. who was entering bankruptcy. They were to have exchanged a number of stores and store inventories. The Woolworth stores were in Boston, Syracuse, Baltimore and Petersburg Va. All I've ever found was a small claim for store repairs entered in Va. Does anyone know who H. G. Woolworth was?

  19. Tom - The only place I was able to come up with anything on H.G. Woolworth was "Google Books". It seems that he was Frank (F.W.) Woolworth's cousin, and he did sell a number of stores to Kresge in 1908, as Kresge's biography (written by his son), and an early 50's Kresge Foundation report attest. One source mentioned that H.G. sold some stores in 1904 to S.H. Knox & Co., a company that was eventually bought out by the more famous F. W. Woolworth Co., the one we're all familiar with.

  20. My grandmother worked at Kresge's when she was younger. I was wondering if it would okay if I used one of these images on her memorial website? I would of course give you credit. Beautiful renderings. Thank you for keeping a site like this up.

  21. Rustproof - Yes, of course.

    Thanks for your kind comments!

  22. Hello,the 1964 Kmart picture is not in Denver, CO, but Colorado Springs, CO, on the corner of S. Circle Dr. and Airport Rd. That Kmart is now closed and the building has a charter school in it. The mountain in the background is Pikes Peak. This used to be our neighborhood Kmart.

  23. Hi,
    I would really like to hear the old Thrifimart jingle if anyome has it. I bought some archive radio recordings that said it was on there but it was not there. Thanks, Laura

  24. I have a 20x30 photo of the grand opening of SS Kresge Store #8 on State St. Chicago Il. The "Special of the Day" at the resturant was ; Roast Young Turkey
    Sage Dressing
    Cranberry Sauce
    Creme Whipped Potato
    Choice of Coffe or Tea
    Roll and Butter

  25. When I was growing up, one of my fondest memories was taking my allowance to the local Kresge's drug store (and soda fountain) and buying Matchbox cars. I was heartbroken when it closed. I loved the toy aisle. Then, as a teen, I would go into Kmart and play on the computer there. It was an old TI/99 4A (new at the time). I went there every chance I had. The manuals were there and I learned how to program a computer (TI BASIC language). That knowledge become my career. I have had a long career in the I/T and training and finally web development worlds. I never would have done it without Kmart. I love that company for these reasons. I so wish they were doing better. The idea of Sears and Kmart failing brings tears to my eyes. I shop there as much as I can, but it's so sad more people don't. I am just one guy, but I wish I could work for that company and come up with some innovative idea. The emailing of receipts is absolutely wonderful. They need more things like that. Like same-day delivery form store to home to fight against Amazon. Have more in-store workshops. Partner with libraries and public schools. They need to be agile and adapt to the market before they disappear.

  26. I remember this store in the Yorkridge shopping Center in Lutherville MD. Right next to Stewarts It had a small diner like place to eat in the back to the left of the store as you walked in. Long before the mega stores and the internet.

    1. Thank you! I also a remember a Kresge store at Yorkridge Shopping Center when I was growing up, but was wondering if I was imagining things. But wasn't it fairly small? I don't remember it too well, but I thought it was more like a drug store. I do remember the eating counter though.

  27. The Blue light special originally was a "Red Light" Special and started in Fargo N.D. in about 1964 by assistants in that store. It was tried out in Detroit after a suggestion was sent in but was soon changed to the Blue Light Special because of a local Pastor's complaint to the company. I was a manager from 1960 to 1969 and worked in 10 stores in four states before leaving the company.

  28. I did a lot of shopping at the SS Kresge on Linden Av. in Dayton, Ohio. I remember we won some gold fish at the fair one year and, the next day went in to Kresge to buy bowls and fish food. At the check out Mom took the receipt and there was a star at the bottom. That star was part of a contest that gave us free shopping but I have since forgotten the amount. We bought an aquarium, gravel, air pump, fish net, cover, light and guppies all free.

  29. I never shopped at an S. S. Kresge store (because, to my knowledge, there weren't any here in Texas), but I was intrigued by the "mood music" that played in their stores as people shopped. Imagine listening to that music while you browsed for toys, toothpaste, or whatever else you needed/wanted. It sounds just like the kind of music you would have heard in the sitcoms of the era.

    As far as K-Mart is concerned, I'm more familiar with it and have shopped there before. The one we have where I live has been open since the 60s and, despite its age, I think it sells the best-looking Christmas decorations, wrapping paper, bows, and other Yuletide supplies.

  30. I managed Kresge stores back in the 1960's as well as their Jupiter Discount Stores which were low end old Kresge stores. Was fun and enjoyed the small stores and friendly people that became regular customers. Time marches on.....