AVENEL, NJ — The familiar sights and sounds are still there: the worn and faded floor tiles, the unforgiving beige-on-beige color scheme, toddler clothes and refrigerators, and just about everything else.
There’s even a canned recording that starts, “Attention Kmart Shoppers” – except it’s to remind people of COVID-19 precautions, not alert them to a flash sale on women’s lingerie like the old days.
Yet many of the shelves are empty at the Kmart in Avenel, New Jersey, picked up by bargain hunters as the store prepares to close for good on April 16.
Once it closes, the number of Kmarts in the US, once more than 2,000, will shrink 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 demise of the store in the middle-class suburb 15 miles south of New York City is the story of the death of discount department stores in a nutshell.
“You’re always thinking about it because stores are closing everywhere, but it’s still sad,” said cashier Michelle Yavorsky, who said she has worked at the Avenel store for two and a half years. I will miss the place. A lot 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 movies including “Rain Man” Y “Beetle juice.”
The chain cemented a place in American culture with its Blue Light Specials, a flickering blue orb affixed to a pole that invited shoppers into an ongoing flash sale. Part of its success was due to the early adoption of layaway programs, which allowed customers who lacked credit to reserve items and pay for them in installments.
For a time, Kmart had a little bit of everything: you could buy your kids’ school supplies, tune up your car, and eat without leaving the place.
“Kmart was part of the United States”, said Michael Lisicky, a Baltimore-based author who has written several books on US retail history. “Everyone went to Kmart, whether you liked it or not. They had everything. You had toys. You had sporting goods. You had sweets. You had stationery. It was something for everyone. This was almost as much a social visit as it was a shopping visit. You could spend hours here. And these just dotted the American landscape over the years.”
Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, fueled by years of declining sales, shifting shopping habits and the looming shadow of Walmart, which coincidentally came into existence 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 U.S. retailer to take that step, announcing that would close more than 250 stores.
A few years later, hedge fund executive Edward Lampert combined Sears and Kmart and vowed to return them to their former greatness, but the recession and Amazon’s growing dominance helped derail those goals. Sears filed for Chapter 11 in 2018 and currently has a handful of stores in the US where it once had thousands.
There were three Kmart stores in Mahoning Valley: in Warren which closed in 2016; in Austintown which closed in 2018; and a Super Kmart in the Eastwood Mall Complex that closed in 2019. It was the last Super Kmart in the US that sold groceries.
The chain also had a distribution center in Bazetta which, at its height, employed up to 800 people. The center that opened in 1982 was downsized to about 50 employees just before closing 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 close to 100 percent occupancy with approximately 170,000 square feet available for rent.
Kmarts continues to operate in Westwood, New Jersey; Bridgehampton, on Long Island, 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 was a foolish strategy, he said, and Lampert was criticized for not having a retail background and appearing more interested in stripping the two chains of assets for their cash value.
“It’s a study in greed, avarice and incompetence,” Cohen said. “Sears should never have gone; Kmart was in worse shape, but not fatally. And now they’re both gone.
“Retailers sometimes fall by the wayside because they sell things that people don’t want to buy,” he continued. “In the case of Kmart, everything that they used to sell, people are buying, but they’re buying from Walmart and Target.”
Transformco, which owns Kmart and Sears, did not respond to an email seeking comment and a company phone number was not receiving messages.
Nationwide, some former Kmarts remain empty, while others have been replaced by other big box stores, gyms, self-storage facilities, and even churches. A former site in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is now a popular movie theater for dinner.
The Super Kmart on Howland Commons to the east of the mall has been demolished to make way for a Meijer Supercenter. The Michigan-based retailer also plans a convenience store and fuel station in the parking lot of the former Kmart.
Kmart employees in Avenel learned last month that the store would close.
Unlike 20 years ago, when news of impending Kmart closings across the country sparked an outpouring of support from loyal shoppers and a Detroit radio station even mounted a campaign to try to save a local store, the Closure of the Avenel location was met primarily with an air of resignation.
“Maybe it’s a bit nostalgic because I’ve lived in this area my whole life, 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 to retail stores.”