AVENEL, NJ – The familiar sights and sounds are still there: the worn and faded floor tiles, the relentless beige-on-beige color scheme, toddlers’ clothes and refrigerators and pretty much everything in between.
There’s even a can shot that begins, “Attention, Kmart shoppers” – except that it’s to remind people of precautions against COVID-19, not to warn them of a quick sale into lingerie like the old days.
However, many of the shelves are bare at Kmart in Avenel, New Jersey, taken over by bargain hunters as the store prepares to close its doors by April 16th.
Once it closes, the number of Kmarts in the US – once well over 2,000 – will be down to three on the continental US and a handful of stores elsewhere, according to several reports, in a retail world now dominated by Walmart, Target and Amazon .
The store’s demise in the middle-class suburb, 24 miles south of New York City, is the story of the low-cost department store’s death, written in small print.
“You always think about it because stores are closing all over the place, but it’s still sad,” said treasurer Michelle Yavorsky, who said she has been working in the Avenel store for 2 years. “I’ll miss the place. A lot of people shopped here.”
In its heyday, Kmart sold product lines approved by celebrities Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith, sponsored NASCAR car races and was mentioned in movies including “Rain Man” and “Beetlejuice”. It was name-dropped in songs by artists from Eminem to Beastie Boys to Hall & Oates; in 2003, Eminem bought a 29-bedroom, suburban Detroit mansion once owned by former Kmart chairman Chuck Conaway.
The chain cemented a place in American culture with its Blue Light Specials, a flashing blue ball attached to a rod that would entice customers to an ongoing flash sale. Part of its success was due to its early adoption of recess programs, which allowed customers who lacked credit to reserve goods and pay for them in installments.
For a while, Kmart had a bit of it all: You could shop for your kids’ school accessories, get your car tuned up, and get a meal of food without leaving the premises.
“Kmart was part of America,” said Michael Lisicky, a Baltimore-based author who has written several books on American retail history. “Everyone went to Kmart, whether you liked it or not. They had everything. You had toys. You had sports equipment. You had candy. You had stationery. It was something for everyone. This was almost as much a social visit like it was a shopping visit. You can spend hours here. And these have just spread the American landscape over the years. “
Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, caused by years of declining sales, changes in shopping habits and the looming shadow of Walmart, which happened to begin its life within months of Kmart’s founding in 1962.
Kmart struggled to compete with Walmart’s low prices and Target’s more trendy offerings. Kmart applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2002 – and became the largest U.S. retailer to take that step – announcing it would close more than 250 stores.
A few years later, hedge fund director Edward Lampert combined Sears and Kmart and promised to bring them back to their former greatness, but the recession and Amazon’s growing dominance helped derail those goals. Sears searched Chapter 11 in 2018 and currently has a handful of stores left in the United States where it once had thousands.
Kmarts continues to operate in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton, on New York’s Long Island and Miami.
It did not have to end this way, 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 appearing more interested in depriving the two chains of assets for their cash value.
“It’s a study in greed, greed and incompetence,” Cohen said. “Sears should never have gone away; Kmart was in worse shape, but not fatally. And now they’re both gone.
“Retailers sometimes fall out of the way because they sell things people do not want to buy,” he continued. “In the case of Kmart, everything they used to sell is bought by people, but they buy it from Walmart and Target.”
Transformco, which owns Kmart and Sears, did not respond to an email seeking comment, and a phone number provided for the company did not receive messages.
Nationwide, some former Kmarts remain vacant, while others have been replaced by other large stores, gyms, self-storage facilities, even churches. A former venue in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is now a popular eat-in movie theater.
Employees at Kmart in Avenel found out last month that the store would close.
Unlike 20 years ago, when news of impending Kmart closures around the country led to a flood 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 mostly met with an air of resignation.
“It may be a little nostalgic because I’ve lived all my life in this area, but it’s just another retail store closing,” said Jim Schaber, a resident of nearby Iselin, who said his brother worked in the shoe department at Kmart for years. “It’s just another sign that people are shopping online and not going out to the retail stores.”
The ending filled in a little more emotionally for Mike Jerdonek, a truck driver who remembered shopping at Kmart in Brooklyn and Queens in his younger days.
“It’s like the story is passing right before our eyes,” he said as he sat in his car outside the Avenel store. “When I was younger I had no money, so it was a good place to shop because the prices were cheap. And to see it go away right now is a little sad. ”