AVENEL, NJ — The familiar sights and sounds are still here: the scuffed and faded floor tiles, the relentless beige-on-beige color scheme, toddler clothes and refrigerators, and just about everything in between.
There’s even a box recording that starts, “Attention, Kmart Shoppers” — except it’s to remind people of COVID-19 precautions, not to alert them to a flash sale on women’s lingerie like the good old days.
However, many shelves are empty at Kmart in Avenel, New Jersey, taken over by bargain hunters as the store prepares to close permanently on April 16.
Once closed, the number of Kmarts in the United States – once well over 2,000 – will be reduced to three in the continental United States and a handful of stores elsewhere, according to several reports, in a now dominated retail world. by Walmart, Target and Amazon.
The store’s demise in middle-class suburbia 15 miles south of New York City is the story of the death of the discount department store to small.
“You always think about it because shops are closing everywhere, but it’s still sad,” said cashier Michelle Yavorsky, who said she had worked at the Avenel store for 2½ years. “I will miss the place. Lots of people shopped here.
In its heyday, Kmart sold product lines endorsed by celebrities Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith, sponsored NASCAR auto races, and was featured in films, including “Rain Man” and “Beetle juice.”
The chain cemented a place in American culture with its Blue Light Specials, a flashing blue orb affixed to a pole that would invite shoppers to an ongoing flash sale. 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.
For a while, Kmart had a bit of everything: you could buy your kids’ back-to-school supplies, get your car serviced, and grab a meal without leaving the premises.
“Kmart was part of America” said Michael Lisicky, a Baltimore-based author who has written several books on the history of US retail. “Everyone went to Kmart whether you liked it or not. They had everything. You had toys. You had sporting goods. You had candy. You had stationery. It was something for everyone. It was almost as much a social visit as a shopping visit. You could spend hours there. And these have just dotted the American landscape over the years.
Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, brought on by years of declining sales, shifts in shopping habits and the looming shadow of Walmart, which coincidentally began months after Kmart was founded 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 U.S. retailer to take that step – and announced that it would close more than 250 stores.
A few years later, hedge fund executive Edward Lampert combined Sears and Kmart and pledged to restore them to their former greatness, but the recession and growing dominance of Amazon helped derail those goals. Sears filed for Chapter 11 in 2018 and currently has a handful of stores in the United States, where it once had thousands.
There were three Kmart stores in the Mahoning Valley: in Warren which closed in 2016; in Austintown which closed in 2018; and a Super Kmart at the Eastwood Mall complex which closed in 2019. It was the last Super Kmart in the United States that sold groceries.
The chain also had a distribution center in Bazetta which, at its height, employed up to 800 people. The center, which opened in 1982, had only around 50 employees just before it closed in early 2019.
The 1.4 million square foot center on Perkins Jones Road was purchased in 2019 by Industrial Commercial Properties, a Cleveland-based industrial and commercial real estate development company. It is nearly 100% occupancy with approximately 170,000 square feet available for lease.
Kmarts continues to operate in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton, on Long Island in New York, and Miami.
It didn’t have to end like this, according to Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University in New York and former CEO of Sears Canada. Trying to compete with Walmart on price was a foolish strategy, he said, and Lampert was criticized for not having a retail background and seeming more interested in stripping the two chains’ assets for value. cash.
“It’s a study in greed, avarice and incompetence”, says Cohen. “Sears should never have left; Kmart was in worse shape, but not fatally. And now they’re both gone.
“Retailers sometimes get left behind because they sell things that people don’t want to buy,” He continued. “In Kmart’s case, whatever they were selling, people are buying, but they’re buying it from Walmart and Target.”
Transformco, owner of Kmart and Sears, did not respond to an email seeking comment and a phone number listed for the company was not taking messages.
Across the country, some former Kmarts remain vacant while others have been replaced by other big box stores, fitness centers, self-storage facilities, even churches. A former site in Colorado Springs, Colorado is now a popular cinema with dining room.
The Super Kmart at Howland Commons, east of the mall, was demolished to make way for a Meijer Supercenter. The Michigan-based retailer is also planning a convenience store and gas station in Kmart’s former parking lot.
Kmart employees in Avenel learned last month that the store was going to close.
Unlike 20 years ago, when news of impending Kmart closures across the country sparked an outpouring of support from loyal shoppers and a Detroit radio station even launched a campaign to try to save a local store, the closure of the Avenel location was met mostly with an air of resignation.
“It may be a little nostalgic because I’ve lived my whole life in this neighborhood, but it’s just another store closing,” said Jim Schaber, a resident of nearby Iselin, who said his brother had worked in Kmart’s shoe department for years. “It’s just another sign that people are shopping online and not going to retail stores.”