By DAVID PORTER – Associated Press
AVENEL, NJ (AP) — The familiar sights and sounds are still there: the scuffed and faded floor tiles, the unforgiving beige-on-beige color scheme, the toddlers’ clothes and refrigerators, and pretty much everything in between.
There’s even a pre-recorded shot that starts with “Attention, Kmart shoppers” — except that it’s meant to remind people of precautions related to COVID-19, rather than to lure them to a flash sale in lingerie like the old days to draw attention to.
However, many of the shelves at Kmart in Avenel, New Jersey, are empty and being taken away by bargain hunters as the store prepares to close its doors forever on April 16.
After the closure, the number of Kmarts in the US — once well over 2,000 — will be reduced to three in the continental US and a handful of stores elsewhere, according to multiple reports in a retail world now dominated by Walmart, Target and Amazon.
The Decline of the Store in the middle-class suburb, 15 miles south of New York City, is the story of the death of the discount department store in miniature.
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“You always think about it because shops are closing everywhere, but it’s still sad,” said cashier Michelle Yavorsky, who says she has worked in the Avenel store for two and a half years. “I will miss the place. A lot of people have shopped here.”
In its heyday, Kmart sold product lines endorsed by celebrities Martha Stewart and Jaclyn Smith, sponsored NASCAR auto races, and was credited in films such as Rain Man and Beetlejuice. It’s been featured in songs by artists from Eminem to the Beastie Boys to Hall & Oates; In 2003, Eminem bought a 29-room mansion in suburban Detroit that was once owned by former Kmart chairman Chuck Conaway.
The chain cemented a place in American culture with its Blue Light Specials, a flashing blue orb attached to a pole that lured shoppers into an ongoing flash sale. Part of the success was due to the early adoption of layaway programs, which allowed customers without credit to reserve items and pay in installments.
For a while, Kmart had a little bit of everything: you could buy your kids’ school supplies, get your car tuned, 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 US retail history. “Everybody went to Kmart whether you liked it or not. They had everything. you had toys They had sporting goods. you had candy They had stationery. There was something for everyone. This was almost as much a social visit as a shopping spree. One could spend hours here. And these have littered the American landscape over the years.”
Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, caused by years of sales declines, changing shopping habits, and the looming shadow of Walmart, which coincidentally began life within months of Kmart’s founding in 1962.
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 do so — and announced plans to close more than 250 stores.
A few years later, hedge fund manager Edward Lampert combined Sears and Kmart and promised to return them to their former glory, but the recession and Amazon’s increasing dominance helped derail those goals. Sears filed for Chapter 11 in 2018 and currently has a handful of stores in the US where there once were thousands.
Kmarts continues to operate in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton on Long Island in New York and Miami.
It didn’t 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 is a stupid strategy, he said, and Lampert has been criticized for not having a retail background and seeming more interested in stripping the two chains’ assets for their cash value.
“It’s a study in greed, avarice and incompetence,” said Cohen. “Sears should never have gone away; Kmart was in worse condition but not fatal. And now both are gone.
“Dealers sometimes get left behind because they’re selling things that people don’t want to buy,” he continued. “In the case of Kmart, people buy whatever they used to sell, but they buy it at Walmart and Target.”
Transformco, which owns Kmart and Sears, did not respond to an email seeking comment, and a phone number listed for the company did not take messages.
Nationwide, some former Kmarts 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 dine-in movie theater.
Employees at Kmart in Avenel learned last month that the store was closing.
Unlike 20 years ago, when news of impending Kmart closures sparked a wave of support from loyal shoppers across the country and a Detroit radio station even launched a campaign to try to save a local store, the closure of the Avenel -Locations mostly with a resignation.
“It might be a little nostalgic because I’ve lived in this area my entire life, but it’s just another retail store closure,” said Jim Schaber, a resident of nearby Iselin, who said his brother lived in the area for years Kmart shoe department worked. “It’s just another sign that people are shopping online and not going to the retail stores.”
The conclusion was even more emotional for Mike Jerdonek, a truck driver who recalled shopping at Kmart in Brooklyn and Queens in his younger days.
“It’s like the story is flashing right before our eyes,” he said as he sat in his car in front of the Avenel store. “I didn’t have any money when I was younger so it was a good place to shop because the prices were cheap. And to see that it’s gone now is kind of sad.”
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