The final three surviving Kmart stores in South Carolina are months away from closing down for good, according to the troubled retail giant.
The news about the latest Kmart stores scheduled to close came out at the end of August. But since Kmart left the Charleston area a while back, I somehow missed it.
But this latest round of closings happens to include the last three locations left in the Palmetto State.
And one of those three final holdouts happens to be the place where I worked my first job.
It makes me sad to think about that store closing down for good, but given the company’s long slide, I can’t say I’m surprised. If anything, I find it shocking it managed to stay open as long as it did.
Kmart was something new in the early 1960s. It was a subsidiary of the S.S. Kresge Company, which introduced the Kmart concept with its first store on March 1, 1962. Kmart opened its first location in Columbia in 1963. (That location was among the first to shut down when the chain started having financial problems.)
The West Columbia location, where I worked beginning way back in 1987, opened about 20 years before that.
The store holds fond memories.
I remember working as a cashier for the ridiculously-low minimum wage of $3.10 per hour. I’m pretty sure than when I actually started there during my junior year of high school, I think my first wage was $2.85 per hour, but I can’t be certain.
When I was a kid, a trip to Kmart back then was a big deal. It was one of the biggest stores in the area other than an actual shopping mall. (And back then, there were few of those.)
I fondly recall the big aisles, the gigantic toy section, the 1970s elevator music. It probably never played there, but for some reason, every time I hear The Fifth Dimension’s Up Up and Away, that store is the first thing I think of.
Here’s a glimpse of what Kmart looked like back then:
I remember following my mother and grandmother through the store. My grandmother was a seamstress and way back then, the store sold material by the yard.
And of course, I remember the famous Bluelight Special, the gimmick that involved on-the-spot bonus sales. Workers would wheel a police light to an area of the store and pull out an old-school ticket gun and offer big markdowns on random items.
Knowing that I was studying broadcasting, store managers would sometimes have me announce the Bluelight Special sales over the house public address system.
I’d even read plugs about sales going on each week.
But it was around Christmastime that I’d watch with amazement during “Moonlight Madness” sales held during extended hours when mobs of shoppers would chase the flashing blue light from one end of the store to another.
Attention Kmart shoppers…an early sign of trouble.
In fact, it was a change involving the Bluelight Special while I was still working there that told me the chain was destined for trouble. It was around 1990 or so, the time the company changed its store logo from the familiar red K and aqua mart to the giant red K with the word mart scribbled in cursive across the middle of it. (I hated that logo.)
The CEO at the time decided that the Bluelight Special was a “cheap and degrading way to sell merchandise.”
It also happened to be the kind of sales techniques that made the store famous.
People loved the Bluelight Special. They wanted big sales. They wanted surprises.
But this CEO, it seemed, wanted to turn Kmart into a clone of Target.
And that’s when Walmart began to take over.
Kmart never seemed to get back on track. Nothing it did after that seemed to stop its demise.
Like I said, I’m sorry to see that store in particular close after just more than 50 years.
But in some ways, I really am surprised it survived as long as it did.