(AVENEL, N.J.) — The familiar sights and sounds are still there: the scuffed and faded floor tiles, the relentless beige-on-beige color scheme, the toddlers’ clothes and refrigerators and pretty much everything in between.
There’s even a canned recording that begins, “Attention, Kmart shoppers” — except it’s to remind folks about COVID-19 precautions, not to alert them to a flash sale over in ladies’ lingerie like days of old.
As bargain-hunters prepare for the Kmart closing its doors, many shelves in the Kmart Avenel store, New Jersey will be empty.
Once it shutters, the number of Kmarts in the U.S. – once well over 2,000 – will be down to a handful of stores in the U.S and its territories, according to multiple reports, in a retail world now dominated by Walmart, Target and Amazon.
The story about the end of the discount department store is small. It was found in an urban middle class suburb just 15 miles (20 kilometers) away from New York City.
“You’re always thinking about it because stores are closing all over, but it’s still sad,” said cashier Michelle Yavorsky, who said she has worked at the Avenel store for 2 ½ years. “I’ll miss the place. A lot of people shopped here.”
In its heyday, Kmart sold product lines endorsed by celebrities Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith, sponsored NASCAR auto races and was mentioned in movies including “Rain Man” and “Beetlejuice.” It was name-dropped in songs by artists from Eminem to the Beastie Boys to Hall & Oates; in 2003, Eminem bought a 29-room, suburban Detroit mansion once owned by former Kmart chairman Chuck Conaway.
Blue Light Specials were a symbol of American culture and cemented the chain’s place. A flashing blue orb was attached to a pole to call shoppers to an in-progress sale. Layaway programs were adopted early by the company, which enabled customers with poor credit to place orders and pay back in installments.
For a time, Kmart had a little bit of everything: You could shop for your kids’ back-to-school supplies, get your car tuned up and grab a meal without leaving the premises.
“Kmart was part of America,” said Michael Lisicky, a Baltimore-based author who has written several books on U.S. retail history. “Everybody went to Kmart, whether you liked it or not. You could find everything. There were toys. You had sporting goods. There was candy. You had stationery. You could find something for everyone. The experience was both social and shopping. This place could be visited for hours. And these just dotted the American landscape over the years.”
Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, brought about by years of falling sales, changes in shopping habits and the looming shadow of Walmart, which coincidentally began its life within months of Kmart’s founding in 1962.
Struggling to compete with Walmart’s low prices and Target’s trendier offerings, Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2002 — becoming the largest U.S. retailer to take that step — and announced it would close more than 250 stores.
Edward Lampert, a hedge fund executive, merged Sears with Kmart a few years later and promised to restore them to former glory. However, the downturn and rising popularity of Amazon contributed to the derailment of those plans. Sears, which filed Chapter 11 for bankruptcy in 2018, has only a handful stores in the United States that once housed thousands.
Kmarts continue to operate in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton, on New York’s Long Island, and Miami.
It didn’t have to end this way, according to Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University in New York and former CEO of Sears Canada. He said that trying to price-competite with Walmart was foolish and Lampert was criticised for his lack of retail experience and for appearing more interested only in removing the assets from the chains for cash value.
“It’s a study in greed, avarice and incompetence,” Cohen said. “Sears should have never gone away; Kmart was in worse shape, but not fatally so. And now they’re both gone.
“Retailers fall by the wayside sometimes because they’re selling things people don’t want to buy,” he continued. “In the case of Kmart, everything they used to sell, people are buying but they’re buying it from Walmart and Target.”
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Transformco, the owner of Kmart and Sears did not respond to an e-mail asking for comments and indicated that the number they had listed was no longer accepting calls.
Some Kmarts are still vacant across the country, while others have been taken over by big-box retailers, gyms, self-storage units, and churches. Colorado Springs’ former location is home to a popular dine–in cinema.
Kmart employees in Avenel discovered last month that they would be closing their store.
It was a different story 20 years ago. While news of Kmart closings in the US elicited support from faithful shoppers, and even a Detroit radio station launched a campaign to save the store, today’s closure of Avenel received a largely resigned response.
“It’s maybe a little nostalgic because I’ve lived my whole life in this area, but it’s just another retail store closing,” said Jim Schaber, a resident of nearby Iselin who said his brother worked in the shoe department at Kmart for years. “It’s just another sign of people doing online shopping and not going out to the retail stores.”
Mike Jerdonek was a truck driver and recalled his childhood shopping trips to Kmart in Brooklyn, Queens.
“It’s like history passing right in front of our eyes,” he said as he sat in his car outside the Avenel store. “When I was younger I didn’t have any money, so it was a good place to shop because the prices were cheap. And to see it gone right now, it’s kind of sad.”
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