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Remembering Kmart: Interesting Facts & History

September 2019's headlines reveal that the so-called "retail apocalypse" has yet to end. They foretell the closing of at least 680 chain stores, including many Sears, Kmart, Forever 21, Fred's and GameStop locations.

Both nearby Kmart stores appear on the list, prompting me to reflect on this retailer's past and present. Although items were sometimes out of stock or lacked price stickers, I don't think it received enough credit for offering remarkable bargains on high-quality goods.

Sure, some of the regular prices are comparatively high, but that's true at many stores. Kmart's sales, coupons and reward program make it possible to pay substantially less for almost anything. I much prefer this to a shiny, remodeled store with a huge marketing budget.

Example 2019 prices before any points or coupons:

  • Spic and Span cellulose sponges x4 ... $1.00 (regular)
  • Four-pack of measuring spoons, plastic ... $1.00 (regular)
  • Short-sleeve t-shirt ... $2.00 (clearance), $6.98 (regular)
  • Smart Sense zipper-seal bags, gallon x70 ... $5.79 (regular)
  • Pampa artichoke hearts, glass jar, 6 oz ... $1.29 (regular)
  • Best Yet distilled white vinegar, 128 oz ... $1.60 (regular)
  • Crowning Touch brown mustard, 12 oz ... $1.29 (regular)
  • Giorgio mushrooms, 4 oz dry weight ... $0.65 (regular)
  • Herr's tortilla chips, 13 oz ... $0.99 (sale), $2.00 (regular)
    vs. $2.44 at Wal-Mart, $3.59 at Target
The nearest Kmart has a number of long-time employees. On the other hand, I've rarely seen anyone work for more than a month or two at some competing retailers. Unlike some discount stores, it has relatively wide aisles, clean surfaces and a non-hectic atmosphere.

Let's take a look at some interesting facts on Kmart's history, products, services and philanthropic efforts:

- Sebastian Kresge started his company in 1899, and it had over 80 discount shops by 1912. Kresge began opening Kmart stores in 1962, according to the Chicago Tribune. The founder passed away four years later.

- Kmart eventually became the company's primary source of revenue. It had 2,000 locations in 1981. Ten years later, Little Caesars decided to establish at least 400 pizza restaurants inside of the stores. A small number of these eateries remain open today.

- In 2002, the discount retailer filed for bankruptcy and over 50,000 staff members lost their jobs. This set the stage for its merger with Sears. The two businesses would share the same headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

- This merger resulted in the introduction of numerous DieHard, Craftsman and Kenmore products at Kmart stores. It became possible to order some types of Sears products and pick them up at a nearby Kmart (and vice versa).

- The retailer decided to drastically cut spending on mass-media advertising. This helped keep prices low but also made Kmart a convenient target for sensationalistic news reports that often relied on anonymous rumors.

- Kmart responded to the 2008 recession by introducing a 20 percent discount on store-brand groceries and medical supplies for unemployed customers. This program has ended, but the chain continues to offer a 10 percent discount to approved nonprofits.

- In 2015, author and TV personality Martha Stewart said that her company had considered purchasing Kmart in the past. She regretted not doing so, according to NBC News. Stewart's business relationship with Kmart began in the late 1980s.

- The 2002/2018 bankruptcies and ongoing decline eventually led to the closure of at least nine out of 10 stores. The popularity of Amazon.com, expansion of competing discount chains, high pension obligations and negative media coverage contributed to this trend.

- In 2016 and 2017, top company officials condemned the media's biased attitude toward Kmart. They criticized a "rush to report the negative" and "frequent false and exaggerated claims," according to the Detroit Free Press.

- During 2017, ShopYourWay members won and earned $800,000,000 worth of points that could be redeemed for discounted or free Kmart and Sears products. Customers often avoid paying retail prices thanks to these points, abundant coupons and FreeCash offers.

- The free SYW membership provides several benefits, including various discounts, an extra 15 days to return products and practically free magazine subscriptions (the total cost is refunded in points). The point expiration dates often range from seven days to one year.

- When hurricanes hit Puerto Rico and parts of the southern U.S. in 2017, Sears/Kmart supplied various types of aid and helped raise money. Stores in Puerto Rico provided areas for visitors to rest and charge portable electronics.

- In April 2018, a Consumer Reports article praised Kmart Pharmacy for its price reductions and pricing transparency/consistency. It questioned why other drug stores don't do the same. This pharmacy chain also offers free delivery of most medications via UPS.

- The free shipping threshold at Kmart.com increased to $59 in 2018. This number compares well with those of Kohl's, J.C. Penney and Big Lots but not Target, Best Buy or CVS. Kmart occasionally reduces the minimum amount temporarily; it's $35+ until at least 9/21/19.

- The company has experimented with opening small Kmarts inside of Sears locations. Business Insider reported that it did this at a Brooklyn store in 2018. Among other things, the new section offers cleaning products, food and health-related goods.

- Most locations supply low-cost financial services, including inexpensive money orders, no-fee cashback and check-cashing for $1. This amount often represents a small fraction of the fee charged to cash checks at a bank or payday lender.

- Many Kmarts feature barcode scanners that allow customers to accurately preview the prices they'll pay at checkout. Some locations have in-store computers; shoppers can use them to check availability, product reviews and other details on Kmart.com.

- A number of food and paper products at Kmart have contents or packages with 100% recycled materials. Examples of this include Essential Home napkins and the cardboard boxes used to package certain Smart Sense items.

- St. Jude Children's Research Hospital reports that Kmart is the business that has collected the most donations for this charity. Contributions have exceeded $115 million. The retailer began accepting online donations in 2019.

So, there are certainly some positive things to be said about Kmart. There are two sides to every story, and it's important to set the record straight when the mass media only tells one of them. The truth isn't so simple or cut-and-dried.

To me, shopping at Kmart often seemed like being back at an Ames department store 20 years ago. Even if I couldn't buy what I was looking for, I'd still find an amazing deal on something else, see some interesting things and hear a Madonna song.

Perhaps some of the more successful remaining stores in places like Minneapolis and Guam will survive for years to come; it's hard to predict. Nothing lasts forever, but I'll always fondly remember Kmart and the days of "Life is Ridiculously Awesome."


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Posted September 2019 - (C) 2019