Death of the Department Store? Latest Kmart Closure Leaves American Icon on Its Last Leg
Attention, Kmart shoppers: Your chances to visit the once massive department store chain are quickly becoming few and far between.
According to the Associated Press, the Kmart location in Avenel, New Jersey, is set to permanently close on Saturday. When it does, there will be just three Kmart stores left in the United States.
“Kmart was part of America,” U.S. retail history author Michael Lisicky said. “Everybody went to Kmart, whether you liked it or not. They had everything.”
Sebastian Spering Kresge opened his first retail store in Detroit, Michigan, in the year 1899, Kmart parent company Transformco said on its website. Everything was listed for either five or 10 cents a piece.
After 13 years of existence, the store was already up to 85 locations.
In 1937, Kresge opened a store in America’s first suburban shopping center in Kansas City, Missouri. He was one of the first businessmen to use a successful newspaper ad campaign to drive business to his stores.
When Harry B. Cunningham became Kresge President in 1959, he used his retail knowledge to revitalize the company. In 1962, he opened the first Kmart discount department store.
Kmart stores slowly became the company’s primary source of revenue, and in 1977, almost 95 percent of the company’s sales were from Kmart stores. It officially changed it’s name to Kmart Corporation that same year.
The stores became widely recognized across the U.S. for their Bluelight Specials. They consisted of a flashing blue light and the announcement of a sudden discount that routinely began with, “Attention, Kmart shoppers.”
At its peak in the 1990s, Kmart had approximately 2,400 stores and 350,000 employees, Fortune reported. But that began to change as competitors like Walmart and Target gained traction.
By 2002, the company was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the AP reported. It was later acquired by hedge fund executive Edward Lampert, who combined it with Sears and hoped to rebuild both retailers.
Instead, the 2008 recession came, and online giant Amazon presented new challenges for traditional department stores. Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy itself in 2018.
Columbia University director of retail studies Mark Cohen told the AP he felt the disaster was avoidable for these two former retail giants.
“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. In the case of Kmart, everything they used to sell, people are buying, but they’re buying it from Walmart and Target.”
Sadly, a deeper dive into the numbers shows Walmart and Target may be rare exceptions to the trend of dying department stores.
According to The Washington Post, almost 200 department stores closed between 2020 and 2021. Real estate firm Green Street predicted another 800 stores would close by the end of 2025.
J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Dillard’s and Nordstrom all joined Sears with a declining number of stores between 2016 and 2021, though Sears underwent the most drastic change.
In an American landscape dominated by online shopping, department stores could be heading towards extinction.
Ironically, Amazon has found out the hard way that its online dominance may be hurting physical retail locations. According to The New York Times, the company announced plans to close over 50 brick and mortar locations in March.
Amazon tried its hand in physical retail, with both bookstores and Amazon 4-Star stores meant to sell a variety of highly-rated products from the website. Yet only its Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods grocery stores have found sustained success.
After the Avenel, New Jersey, Kmart shuts its doors on Saturday, the only three locations will be in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton, New York and Miami.
One customer named Mike Jerdonek told the AP, “It’s like history passing right in front of our eyes.”
Perhaps the saddest part of it all is that many people do not seem to share this sentiment. Instead, they feel roughly the same way as Jim Schaber, a man who lives near the Avenel Kmart.
“It’s maybe a little nostalgic because I’ve lived my whole life in this area, but it’s just another retail store closing,” he told the AP. “It’s just another sign of people doing online shopping and not going out to the retail stores.”
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