AVENILLE, NJ – The familiar sights and sounds are still there: the dull, faded floor tiles, the unrelenting beige-on-beige color scheme, toddler clothes and refrigerators and just about everything in between.
There’s even a taping ready that begins, “Attention, Kmart shoppers” — except reminding people of COVID-19 precautions, not alerting them to a quick sale in women’s underwear like the good old days.
Several of the shelves are bare, though, at Kmart in Avenell, N.J., handpicked by bargain hunters as the store prepares to close its doors on April 16.
Once closed, the number of Kmarts in the US – once more than 2,000 – will fall to three in the continental US and a few stores elsewhere, according to multiple reports, in a retail world now dominated by Walmart, Target and Amazon.
The demise of the store in a middle-class suburb, 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of New York City, is the tale of the demise of the discount department store.
“You always think about it because the stores are closing everywhere, but it’s still sad,” said treasurer Michelle Yavorsky, who said she’s worked at Avenell for two and a half years. “I will miss the place. Lots of people shop here.”
At its peak, Kmart sold celebrity-endorsed production lines Martha Stewart and Jacqueline Smith, sponsored NASCAR races and was featured in films including “Rain Man” and “Beetlejuice.” The name has been dropped in songs by artists from Eminem to Beastie Boys to Hall & Oates; In 2003, Eminem purchased a 29-room mansion in suburban Detroit once owned by former Kmart boss Chuck Conway.
The chain cemented a place in American culture with displays of Blue Light Specials, a flashing blue ball mounted on a pole that would lure shoppers to a flash sale in progress. Part of its success is due to its early adoption of temporary programs, which allowed credit-poor customers to reserve items and pay for them in installments.
For a while, Kmart had a little bit of everything: you could shop for back-to-school supplies for your kids, get your car ready and have a meal without leaving the building.
“Kmart was part of America,” said Michael Lesicki, a Baltimore-based author who has written several books on the history of US retail. “Everyone went to Kmart, like it or not. They had everything. You had games. You had sporting goods. You had candy. You had stationery. It was something for everyone. This was as much a social visit as it was a shopping visit. hours here. And those have proliferated on the American scene over the years.”
Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, due to years of declining sales, changes in shopping habits and the looming shadow of Walmart, which began life by chance within months of founding Kmart in 1962.
Struggling to compete with Walmart’s lower prices and more trendy Target offerings, Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2002—becoming the largest US retailer to make the move—and announced it was closing more than 250 stores.
A few years later, hedge fund CEO Edward Lambert merged Sears and Kmart and vowed to return them to their former greatness, but the stagnation and growing dominance of Amazon contributed to derailing those goals. Sears applied for Chapter 11 in 2018 and currently has a few stores left in the US where it had thousands before.
Kmarts continues to operate in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton, on Long Island in New York, and Miami.
It didn’t have to end that way, according to Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University in New York and former CEO of Sears Canada. He said trying to compete with Walmart on price was a foolish strategy, and Lambert was criticized for not having a retail background and for appearing more interested in stripping the two chains’ assets for their monetary value.
“It’s a study in greed, miserliness, and incompetence,” Cohen said. Sears should never have gone; Kmart was in worse shape, but she wasn’t fatal. And now they’re both gone.
“Retailers sometimes get by the wayside because they’re selling things that people don’t want to buy,” he continued. “In the case of Kmart, whatever they used to sell, people buy but buy at Walmart and Target.”
Transformco, which owns Kmart and Sears, did not respond to an email requesting comment, and the phone number listed for the company does not receive messages.
Nationwide, some former Kmart cars remain vacant while others have been replaced by other large department stores, fitness centers, self-storage facilities, and even churches. A former location in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is now a popular movie theater for dinner.
Employees at Kmart in Avenel discovered last month that the store would be closing.
Unlike 20 years ago, when news of Kmart’s impending closure across the country led to an outpouring of support from loyal shoppers, and even a Detroit radio station campaigned to try to save a local store, the closure of Avenil was mostly met by Joe’s resignation.
“Maybe it’s a bit nostalgic because I’ve lived my whole life in this area, but this is just another retail closure,” said Jim Schaber, a resident of nearby Iselin who said his brother had worked in the shoe department at Kmart for years. “It’s just another sign that people are shopping online and not going to retail stores.”
The conclusion was an emotional shocker for Mike Gerdonk, a truck driver who remembered shopping at Kmart in Brooklyn and Queens in his younger days.
“It’s like history is passing before our eyes,” he said, sitting in his car outside the Avenil store. “When I was younger I didn’t have any cash, so it was a good place to shop because the prices were cheap. And to see them go away now, it’s kind of sad.”
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