AVENEL, New Jersey — On a busy stretch of Route 35 near Rahway, New Jersey, one of the nation’s last Kmart stores looks like a relic from the past. Its big red K is faded and cracked. Inside this most American of retail stores, popular for K Cafe luncheonettes and Bluelight Specials, a sign promotes 60% off clothing. A dining-room table was on clearance for $89, while Route 66 jeans went for $10.99 and pink ladies’ neck sweaters for $12.49.
But a spacious parking lot was mostly empty with a handful of bargain shoppers scurrying into the store over a couple of hours. Some came out empty-handed. A woman said her elderly mother walks the shopper-barren Kmart aisles for safe exercise. She was checking on her.
Another shopper, 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 lot.
Kmart blazed to American retail glory beginning in the early 1960s, seeking to dominate the discount retail sector with discounted national brands — a first at the time. At its peak in the 1990s, Kmart operated about 2,400 stores and employed 350,000 in the United States and Canada. Its brands once included PayLess Drug Stores, the Borders bookstore chain, and Sports Authority.
Now with two Kmarts slated to close, that will leave just four stores open in the United States, Kmart death watchers say. One is here in Avenel, and a second in northern New Jersey, in Westwood. The others are on Long Island, N.Y., and in Miami.
“They were quite a happening in the 1960s and 1970s,” said Fred Hurvitz, retailing professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Kmart was growing like crazy.”
Shoppers would wait for Kmart employees to announce a “Bluelight Special” — or daily deals — in specific departments and rush to see what they were, adding thrills to the day’s experience. Hurvitz said that Kmart “did well for 20 or 25 years” and then Walmart, with its efficient supply chain and reputation for low prices, drove it under.
“It’s amazing to remember that [Kmart] started out the same year as Walmart and Target in 1962. Kmart had its day but wasn’t able 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 bargains or style, Howard said, and if there is nostalgia for Kmart, it speaks to the “current state of affairs in terms of the retail apocalypse.”
The Sears chain merged with Kmart more than 15 years ago under the hedge fund operator Eddie Lampert, who has turned 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 valuable real estate behind to be sold or redeveloped.
But even as Transformco shutters Kmart stores, the discount chain lives on in Reddit, YouTube, and Facebook posts with devout followers who are nostalgic or fascinated by Kmart’s demise. A vast trove of Kmart video lives on the internet.
Videos of the last Kmarts
Chris Fitzwater, a 37-year-old from Warren, Ohio, holds “just great memories” of visiting the local Kmart with his great-grandmother and grandmother. They ate at the K Cafe luncheonette. He bought Nintendo 64 games along with football jerseys and sports cards.
One day several years ago, Fitzwater decided to shoot video of the Kmart storefronts and interiors still open. He’d hop in his car and drive for hours to find them. He has posted videos on YouTube. “It was so much fun. When I started filming, there were Kmarts everywhere,” said Fitzwater, who works in a chemical factory. Sadly, the Kmart of Fitzwater’s childhood in Warren closed by the time he began to create his Kmart video archive.
Kmart fans also connect at the Sears Holding Kmart and Sears Fan Group Facebook page. On Feb. 11, Scotty Baker, 50, of Tacoma, Wash., posted Kmart’s Thanksgiving sales fliers for 2012 that advertised a 42-inch RCA Plasma television for $199 and a “buy one, get one free” deal for board games. Among his regular posts last week was “raw footage” video from late January of the last Kmart in Montana — which is slated to close.
Ben Schultz, 23, was too young to have experienced Kmart’s powerful hold on American retailing. Plus, he said, “my family was more of a Target family.” In his teen years, Schultz worked at a McDonald’s in a parking lot in front of a Kmart. “On my lunch break I would wander around there [the Kmart],” he said. “There weren’t many people in there.”
Now a graduate student in public history at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Schultz has become an expert on Kmarts and the company, putting together a spreadsheet and a map of every Kmart — when it opened and when it closed, with the address and other information.
“Kmart absolutely reigned supreme over the retail-discount market,” he said. “Their focus was to be America’s discount store. They essentially wanted to have a monopoly over the industry and it seemed like it was within their reach.”
Kmart, Schultz said, was to be “so bland that nobody felt it was uninviting. It was a place that could be common to everyone.” A Kmart Corp. annual report showed the chain had revenue of about $37 billion in 1993, near the height of Kmart’s popularity.
But the discount chain’s blandness became a detriment, Schultz believes. “When they tried to change their image, they did not have an image,” he said. “When Walmart and Target came into the community, customers thought they were shopping with their kind of people.”
What’s left of Kmart
Kmart’s store locator on the chain’s website tells shoppers of open stores in each state. But it 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 not in service at four. An employee answered the phone at the Bridgehampton store, far out on Long Island.
There was a Kmart listed in Marshall, Mich. 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 press reports say that Kmart will close Key West. An employee at the Kmart in Miami said that her store was the only one open in the state. The company did not respond to a request for the number of Kmarts still open in the United States.
Schultz believes there is a reason for the continued existence of the Kmarts in New Jersey and on Long Island. “New York has had a strong stance against Walmart, so that has helped [Kmart]. But they still have to compete with Target and Amazon,” Schultz said. “I have a hard time imagining them staying around much longer.”
The Kmart in Avenel is in a plaza with an LA Fitness, a Bury the Hatchet ax-throwing business, an indoor trampoline park, and a Subway.
Seagulls screeched in the parking lot.
Renee Motz, of Carteret, came out of the Avenel Kmart. She used to shop at other Kmarts, but they shuttered their doors, leaving this one. She doesn’t buy food here but likes bargains on blouses and other clothing. “I’m afraid it might close,” she said. “I hope not.”
— Bob Fernandez