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Attention, Shoppers: Kmart Wrote Its Epitaph

The retail giant that sank five-and-dimes was a role model for its surviving competitors.


There is an almost Shakespearean justice to the imminent death of Kmart, once the Goliath of the value mercantile. Since its inception in 1962, it has stormed the landscape of low-end retail, cannibalizing its ancestors--the local five-and-dimes, the Main Street discount stores. Not even the venerable Woolworth & Co. was safe; the last red and gold sign came down five years ago, felled in part by Kmart and its competitor cronies, Target and Wal-Mart. So it is fitting that Kmart should suffer the same fate, hoist with its own strategic petard--the big fish eat the little fish until a bigger fish comes along.

In its own slick-floored way, Kmart is an American icon. The signatory loudspeaker announcement--"Attention, Kmart shoppers"--and the famous Blue Light Special have entered the vernacular as etymological kitsch, a sort of low-rent punch line. Kmart was tacky. And sometimes tacky was good, in a post-Reagan-era ironic way, and sometimes it was bad, in the ultimate high school fashion put-down way. Still, it dominated the discount-store market for two decades--it wasn't until the 1980s that Wal-Mart pulled ahead and Kmart began to flail.

For years, the company tried to change its image through a variety of ill-advised relationships--first with a line of women's wear designed for (or was it by?) Jaclyn Smith. More recently, Martha Stewart endorsed a line of products, and Disney shipped over a bevy of merchandise that didn't move fast enough at its stores. All of which shared a what-were-they-thinking? air of inevitable failure, although the personalities involved seem strangely appropriate--Stewart is a chilly, merchandise-moving sort of gal, and Smith's career seems to have followed a trajectory similar to the store's.

Icon or not, it is difficult to mourn the store's likely passing. Unlike Woolworth, with its wood floors and white-aproned lunch-counter waitresses, Kmart was never about anything but moving merchandise.

When the first Kmart opened in Detroit in 1962, it marked a shift in the pattern of American retail--the placement of low prices over store loyalty, over a pleasant shopping experience. The store and the tribe it soon founded were short on charm, ambience or personality. In their place was merchandise. Rows and stacks and towers and wire baskets full of merchandise. All priced to move.

No one will reminisce years hence about grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk with Grandma at Kmart--there was food available, but the homey lunch counter had been replaced by the ubiquitous fast food window. One did not browse Kmart; the stores were simply too big for idle wandering and grew bigger as the years passed and super-sizing became a national habit. Yes, you could get a lot of stuff at Kmart, laundry baskets and gym socks, coloring books and motor oil, but there was little joy in the trip. Just an exhausted sense of accomplishment when you finally made your way back to the car, amid the dry whistle of those white plastic bags.

Even in its heyday, Kmart never hitched itself to our hearts. It was more interested in our wallets. It pushed at the borders of what people will endure to save a few cents--long checkout lines, overcrowded aisles, battered merchandise in general disarray, unhelpful staff. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton famously said he developed his store by studying Kmart and correcting everything it did wrong.

It is the most frightening fable in the storybook--the creation turns on the creator. In essence, Kmart was eaten by its own children. Soon that familiar red K may go the way of the Woolworth sign, and we will be left with no blue light to guide us through the ever-widening caverns and towering forests of discount merchandise. Wal-Mart, Target, Costco continue to morph the family shopping excursion from a stroll down Main Street into a weekend in Las Vegas during which hours, possibly days, are lost, wandering an indoor virtual world of consumerism.

There is no warmth in any of these stores, no beauty or grace or human connection. Just stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. And as any poet or playwright will tell you, at the end of the day, it's never the stuff that matters.

It will be interesting to see if a bigger fish comes along, a leviathan large enough to swallow Sam Walton's dream. Or perhaps this generation of giants will be undone by a microbe. When we get tired of pushing shopping carts that weigh more than a small car, when the endless mile-wide aisles stacked to the heavens with boxes and jars finally render making a choice impossible, we may find ourselves willing to pay an extra buck for a store not disgorged from the imagination of Jonathan Swift.

Think of it. The legacy of Kmart's demise may be the discount boutique.

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