This past Saturday, April 16, yet another Kmart met it’s demise as the Avenel, NJ location shuttered its doors for good. Being a New Jersey native originally myself, the news struck a nerve for me personally, causing me to reflect on my own childhood memories of the once giant corporation, as well as its history.
The roots of Kmart can be traced as far back as 1899, when Pennsylvania-born business man Sebastian Spering Kresge founded the S.S. Kresge Corporation, which would ultimately evolve into Kmart in 1962 (four years before Kresge’s death in 1966), opening it’s first location in Grand City, Michigan. During the ’60s and ’70s, the Kmart brand became one of the dominant retail forces in the United States and Canada, with the phrase “Attention Kmart shoppers” etching its place in pop culture history after the Blue Light Special was first introduced in 1965.
By 1977 the S.S. Kresge Corporation had officially become the Kmart Corporation, and the company continued to thrive throughout the 1980’s. Many store locations already had cafeterias inside them, but by 1985 Kmart began co-branding with major fast food companies, beginning with adding a Wendy’s to their Canton, Michigan location that same year. These would continue to expand with other big-name restaurants, Little Caesars being one of the more prominent ones used.
During this time frame of the mid-to-late ’80s, Kmart became one of the places to be. As a kid myself during the ’80s, there were few places I looked forward to stopping at more (other than maybe MacDonald’s) than Kmart. Our specific location in Clementon, NJ had a cafeteria that sold Churros, soft pretzels, and Icee’s, and there seemed to always be kids just “hanging out.” And for a moment, the toy aisle, lined from top to bottom with G.I. Joe’s, Transformers, and Ninja Turtles, seemed like the most magical place on Earth to me. And in my teens, Kmart (along with Blockbuster) was one of the first places I ever drove to on my own after first getting a driver’s license.
Kmart thrived throughout the ’90s, reaching its peak by 1994 with 2,486 store locations open worldwide. But seemingly overnight things began to wane, with competitors like Wal Mart, Target, and eventually Amazon, dominating the retail world. Kmart filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2002, and only continued to decline from there on out.
In late 2004, Kmart began the process of purchasing Sears, and by 2005, both Sears and Kmart stores would be operated under the new Sears Holdings Corporation. Over the years, more and more stores began liquidating assets and closing their doors, even with later CEO Eddie Lampert promising to bring these stores back to their prime, something that indeed still yet to come to fruition.
At the start of 2022, Kmart still had ten locations operating in the U.S. But with this past weekend’s most recent closure, there is merely three stores left in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. The last time I was in a Kmart myself was over six years ago when the Daytona Beach, FL location was in the process of closing. It was a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and a clear reminder of what once was. Hopefully one day I can again walk through the doors of a Kmart store and hear the words “Attention Kmart shoppers” uttered again. Until then, I think I’ll go order something off of Kmart’s site, just to keep them around a little bit longer.