The familiar sights and sounds are still there: the scuffed and faded floor tiles, the relentless beige-on-beige color scheme, the toddlers' clothes, refrigerators and pretty much everything in between. There’s even a canned recording that begins, “Attention, Kmart shoppers”—except it’s to remind folks about COVID-19 precautions, not to alert them to a flash sale over in ladies’ lingerie like days of old. Many of the shelves are bare, though, at the Kmart in Avenel, New Jersey, picked over by bargain hunters as the store prepares to close its doors for good April 16, per the AP. Once it shutters, the number of Kmarts in the US—once well over 2,000—will be down to three last holdouts, in a retail world now dominated by Walmart, Target, and Amazon.
Kmarts will continue to operate in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton, on New York’s Long Island; and Miami. In its heyday, Kmart sold product lines endorsed by celebrities Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith, sponsored NASCAR auto races, and was mentioned in movies including Rain Man and Beetlejuice. It was name-dropped in songs by artists from Eminem to the Beastie Boys to Hall and Oates. The chain cemented a place in American culture with its Blue Light Specials, a flashing blue orb affixed to a pole that would beckon shoppers to a flash sale in progress. Part of its success was due to its early adoption of layaway programs, which allowed customers who lacked credit to reserve items and pay for them in installments.
Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, brought about by years of falling sales, changes in shopping habits, and the looming shadow of Walmart, which coincidentally began its life within months of Kmart’s founding in 1962. Struggling to compete with Walmart’s low prices and Target’s trendier offerings, Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2002—becoming the largest US retailer to take that step—and announced it would close more than 250 stores. A few years later, hedge fund executive Edward Lampert combined Sears and Kmart and pledged to return them to their former greatness, but the recession and the rising dominance of Amazon contributed in derailing those goals. Sears filed for Chapter 11 in 2018 and currently has a handful of stores left.
(Read more Kmart