AVENEL, NJ — On a busy stretch of Route 35 near Rahway, one of the country’s last remaining Kmart stores looks like a relic of the past. Her big red K is faded and cracked. Inside this most American of retail stores, popular for K Cafe lunches and Bluelight Specials, a sign is promoting 60% off clothing. A dining table was on clearance for $89, while Route 66 jeans were $10.99 and women’s pink sweaters were $12.49.
But a spacious parking lot was mostly empty with a handful of bargain shoppers rushing into the store for a few hours. Some left empty-handed. A woman said her elderly mother roamed the deserted aisles of Kmart to exercise safely. She watched her.
Another customer, Grace Celauro, 69, said: “I came here out of boredom.” She bought two winter coats for her grandchildren. “I don’t know how they stay in business,” she said, scanning the grounds.
Kmart rose to American retail glory beginning in the early 1960s, seeking to dominate the discount retail industry with national discount brands – a first for the time. At its peak in the 1990sKmart operated approximately 2,400 stores and employed 350,000 in the United States and Canada. His marks once included PayLess Drug Stores, the Borders bookstore chain and Sports Authority.
Now, with two Kmarts set to close, that will leave just four stores open in the United States, Kmart death watchers say. One is here in Avenel, Middlesex County, and a second in northern New Jersey, in Westwood. The others are in Long Island, NY, and Miami. At one time or another, Kmart operated nearly 40 stores in Philadelphia and its suburbs in Pennsylvania and South Jersey. The last one closed in 2019.
“It was quite an event in the 1960s and 1970s,” said Fred Hurvitz, a retail professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Kmart was growing like crazy.”
Shoppers waited for Kmart employees to announce a “Bluelight Special” – or daily deals – in specific departments and rushed to see what they were, adding thrills to the day’s experience. Hurvitz said Kmart “did well for 20 or 25 years” and then Walmart, with its efficient supply chain and reputation for low prices, took it down the drain.
“It’s amazing to remember that [Kmart] started the same year as Walmart and Target in 1962. Kmart had its day but was unable to define its market as clearly as the other two discounters,” said Vicki Howard, author of From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store. Kmart didn’t have the best business or the best style, Howard said, and if there’s any nostalgia for Kmart, it’s a testament to “the current state of affairs in terms of the retail apocalypse.”
The Sears chain merged with Kmart over 15 years ago under the hedge fund operator Eddie Lampert, which transformed their liquidation into a business plan. Both retailers filed for bankruptcy in 2018. Sears and Kmart stores, operating under the Transformco entity, are still controlled by Lampert and have closed en masse in recent years, leaving behind valuable real estate for sale or redevelopment .
The last full-line Sears in Pennsylvania, in Willow Grove, is scheduled to close in a few weeks.
But even as Transformco closes Kmart stores, the discount chain lives on in Reddit, YouTube and Facebook posts with ardent followers nostalgic or fascinated by Kmart’s demise. A vast treasure trove of Kmart videos lives on the internet.
Chris Fitzwater, a 37-year-old from Warren, Ohio, has “just fond memories” of visiting the local Kmart with his great-grandmother and grandmother. They ate lunch at K Cafe. He bought Nintendo 64 games as well as football shirts and sports cards.
One day, several years ago, Fitzwater decided to shoot a video of Kmart’s still-open storefronts and interiors. He would jump in his car and drive for hours to find them. He has videos posted on YouTube. “It was so much fun. When I started filming, there were Kmarts everywhere,” said Fitzwater, who works at a chemical plant. Sadly, Fitzwater’s Kmart childhood in Warren ended at the when he started creating his Kmart video archive.
Kmart fans also log on to Sears Holding Kmart and Sears Fan Group The Facebook page. On Feb. 11, Scotty Baker, 50, of Tacoma, Wash., released Kmart’s 2012 Thanksgiving sales flyers that advertised a 42-inch RCA plasma TV for $199 and a “buy one, get it” offer. in one free” for board games. Among his regular posts last week was a “raw footage” video from late January of the last Kmart in Montana – which is expected to close.
Ben Schultz, 23, was too young to have known about Kmart’s powerful grip on American retail. Plus, he said, “my family was more of a Target family.” As a teenager, Schultz worked at a McDonald’s in a parking lot in front of a Kmart. “During my lunch break, I was walking there [the Kmart],” he said. “There weren’t many people in there.”
Now a graduate student in public history at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Schultz has become an expert on Kmarts and business, creating a spreadsheet and map of every Kmart — when it opened and when it closed. , with address and other information.
“Kmart has absolutely reigned supreme in the retail discount market,” he said. “Their goal was to be America’s discount store. They basically wanted to have a monopoly on the industry and it seemed like it was within their reach.
Kmart, Schultz said, had to be “so bland that no one thought it was unattractive. It was a place that could be common to everyone. An annual report from Kmart Corp. showed that the chain had revenues of about $37 billion in 1993near the peak of Kmart’s popularity.
But the discount chain’s blandness has become a downside, Schultz believes. “When they tried to change their image, they had no image,” he said. “When Walmart and Target came into the community, customers thought they were shopping with their kind of people.”
Kmart’s store locator on the chain’s website shows shoppers which stores are open in each state. But this is often wrong. The web lists five Kmarts in New York: White Plains, Bridgehampton, Manhattan, and two in the Bronx. But the phones were disconnected or out of order at four o’clock. An employee answered the phone at the store in Bridgehampton, far from Long Island.
There was a Kmart listed in Marshall, Michigan. No one answered the phone. Google showed it “permanently closed”.
Kmart has four stores in Florida, in Key West, Marathon, Key Largo and Miami, the website says. Recent news reports indicate that Kmart will close Key West. A Kmart employee in Miami said her store was the only one open in the state. The company did not respond to a query about how many Kmarts are still open in the United States.
Schultz thinks there’s a reason for the continued existence of Kmarts in New Jersey and Long Island. “New York has taken a tough stance against Walmart, which has helped [Kmart]. But they still have to compete with Target and Amazon,” Schultz said. “I can’t imagine them staying any longer.”
The Kmart in Avenel is in a plaza with an LA Fitness, an ax throwing business Bury the Hatchet, an indoor trampoline park, and a subway.
Seagulls were screaming in the parking lot.
Renée Motz, from Carteret, left Avenel Kmart. She used to shop at other Kmarts, but they closed, leaving this one. She doesn’t buy food here but likes bargains on blouses and other clothes. “I’m afraid it’s closing,” she said. “I hope not.”