PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — Attention Czech and Slovak shoppers: The blue light special is here.
Kmart Corp., America's second-largest retailer, is transforming 13 Communist-era department stores with its own formula for mass marketing to the middle class.
Despite the stores' gray-on-gray color schemes and keep-the-customer-at-bay layouts--features typical of Communist retailing--Kmart believes that they can be transformed into outlets that suburban Americans would love.
And certainly Western-looking Czechoslovak shoppers are ready for "Modre svetlo!" although Kmart's trademark blue-light alerts to special discounts are turned on only briefly now. The director says they still make the staff a little nervous.
Seven months after closing the $100-million deal to buy the stores from the Czechoslovak government, Kmart is launching a $20-million top-to-bottom remodeling that will bring in what executives call the Kmart "ambience."
It will also give the Troy, Mich.-based retailer instant dominance in its new market. Kmart expects its flagship stores in Prague and Bratislava, which will be the capital of independent Slovakia when the country splits Jan. 1, to rank among the top 10% of all Kmart stores in sales volume.
The stores are already profitable but, as managing director Max Seunik said, they are "not Kmart-looking." That is putting it mildly.
The Kmart in Prague, a former Maj store, is a six-story socialist-style monstrosity with a sooty glass exterior and creaking escalators. Capitalism has made the merchandise plentiful, but it remains marooned on out-of-reach shelves under the guard of clerks or corralled in bullpens to which access is limited.
As part of the renovation, the bullpens will be enlarged and customer service desks added. Clothing offerings will be coordinated and rotated with the seasons, ending the "take what you can get" technique familiar to millions who lived under communism.