After inadvertently stumbling across some vintage footage of shopping culture from yesteryear, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Is it reasonable, at this point, to compare the revolution in how we consume goods with the old cliché of a boiling frog? How much longer before we the frogs feel the temperature climbing? Using any vintage retail video from the YouTube channel Vampire Robot, it’s easy to put two and two together and presume shopping may soon morph to a marginal activity, at least compared to the leisure pastime it was just a decade or two ago. It might already be marginal. All of Vampire Robot’s footage is old but not ancient; it goes without saying that if there’s random recorded videos of people hanging around malls, such footage must date from a time when personal video recorders were easily available, let alone when malls were prevalent. In other words, most of Vampire Robot’s footage dates from the mid 1980s up until the early 2000s, give or take some years. (I guess anything more recent than 2005 loses the nostalgia cachet.)
Among this emergent YouTube channel’s extensive collection, I was particularly taken by a view of a Kmart store in 1999, apparently Kmart in New York City. (Probably not the heart of the city; the big box typology that Kmart personified for decades was as much an outlier in a hyper-dense city like NYC back then as it is today. Maybe this Kmart is in Staten Island or Queens.) It doesn’t really matter that much if it’s Manhattan New York or Manhattan Kansas; nor is there any point in fixating on outdated fashion, or those quaint prices. What I noticed about Kmart in 1999 is that the shelves seemed invariably well stocked. Most of the footage covers people milling around the housewares section, and every display of towels, oven mitts, fitted sheets is jam-packed. Merchandise from floor to ceiling—not even two square feet of bare space. It looked immaculate.
Little could anyone have imagined in 1999 that such a retail stalwart as Kmart would essentially cease to exist a quarter-century later. But I’ve covered its slow-drip retreat to irrelevance many times over the years: from its unfortuitous site selection (compared to the smarter choices of competitor Walmart) to occasional added features like gas stations. It hasn’t really mattered; Kmart and its sister company Sears have failed to adapt their merchandise or marketing campaign to the modern era. People just stopped shopping there, and the leadership at Sears Holdings Corporation (the parent company ever since Sears and Kmart merged in 2005) didn’t seem to care. So Kmart began to liquidate its most underperforming locations, its numbers dropping precipitously from its mid 1990s peak of nearly 2,500 stores. At this time, I count exactly three operating Kmarts in the United States: one in Miami, one on Long Island, and one in northern New Jersey, which is liquidating as it prepares for closure. That’s it. Maybe the 1999 vintage retail video from Vampire Robot is that surviving location on Long Island (fat chance). There’s no question: the chain is toast.
The fact that one would never expect this from looking at the 1999 Vampire Robot footage is merely a testament to how impossible it is to predict the future, at least as far as customer buying patterns are concerned. (Impossible by most other metrics as well.) However, even back in 1999, the portents were there for those willing to look: the company achieved peak sales in 1992, then shed 200 locations in 1995. At the time of the Vampire Robot video, Kmart had already lost considerable ground to Walmart; patrons would probably have characterized the aging company as “faded” or “past its prime” but “still offered good deals”—enough that the 1999 still featured reasonable customer traffic and the obsolete Kmart Café, all but a distant memory during the merger with Sears. Kmart’s first Chapter 11 declaration took place in 2002, hot on the heels of a liquidity crisis during the late 2001 recession that prompted some vendors to halt their shipments. But there’s no trace of this escalating panic in the vintage retail video; in 1999, Kmart still conveyed abundance.
The institution, founded a century earlier as the S.S. Kresge Company (the Kresge giving the “K” in Kmart), languished throughout the 2000s and 2010s, devolving into a relic—a place that was still pretty ubiquitous but had no loyal customer base. Several years ago, as I covered a Kmart preparing for liquidation in Quakertown, PA, I noted that the location had already shed its pharmacy many years prior, as evidenced by the weathered labelscar out front. It was a long time coming for both Kmart and Sears, but their final locations revealed much the same lack of vendor confidence as during 2002 bankruptcy: empty wings and shelves, because the vendors that used to maintain reliable contracts with Kmart could no longer depend on them to sell the items off the shelves before they became obsolete or passé. (Or to pay off their debts, if they were buying goods from the vendors on credit.) Both Kmart and Sears are now in the hospice-care stage of their respective businesses’ lives; after a late 2018 Chapter 11 filing, a hedge fund (run by same individual who helped propel Sears and Kmart into such roaring success in the 2000s) purchased Sears Holdings Company and spun it into Transformco, a privately held company—and proceeded to phase out any and all underperforming Sears or Kmart locations, which is basically all of them. At this point, there are no more than 25 locations total between Sears and Kmart, and that includes the outlying US principalities where Kmart still seems to enjoy a marginal foothold: places like Guam or the US Virgin Islands, but not Puerto Rico (all closed over there too).
But neither Kmart, Sears, nor Transformco are the real point of this article. Returning again to the vintage retail video of Vampire Robot, I note again that, in 1999, even a company already in the early stages of decline (as Kmart was), the shelves remained fully stocked and tidy. And we can compare that to a store in 2023:
Whether or not a person has watched any clips from Vampire Robot—or popped a videocassette copy of Career Opportunities into a VHS—the majority of Americans would recognize the interior from the above photos. The bold and simplistic color palette; the underlying prevalence of red. They come from a Target—specifically the Target at Potomac Yard Center in Alexandria, Virginia, from July of 2023.
During a brief trip to this Target, it was amazing how many of the shelves looked understocked.
Maybe this location experienced a hot run on the back-to-school sale, but keep in mind, these photos date from early July; not exact a peak time for back-to-school shopping in Northern Virginia, where most public schools didn’t go back in session for another six weeks. The picked-over appearance was noticeable at various locations throughout the store, though I focused my efforts on areas with durable goods: housewares, office and school supplies, clothing—all departments where merchandise can linger on the shelves for months without degrading in quality, in great contrast from food (especially produce) or over-the-counter medicines.
I’ll offer at least a few caveats: after noticing the first conspicuously empty shelf, I began to seek them out, primarily photographing those those areas where the sparseness of merchandise was particularly pronounced. So I was confirming my own bias in the process. Not all of this Target looked this barren; I didn’t visit many departments, and those areas that I didn’t photograph (the vast majority of the store) looked adequate or good. At no point did the condition of this Target look anywhere near as desolate as the Sears that I explored in Frederick, Maryland a year earlier–a department store where entire wings were closed.
But this is Target—a budget department that had prevailed and even grown stronger during the last twenty-five years, when Kmart and Sears floundered, and conventional department stores merged into conglomerates like Macy’s or the now-defunct Bon-Ton. For most of the 21st century, Target has successfully positioned itself as a a slightly tonier alternative to Walmart—a marginally higher price tag for low-cost products with a greater sense of style, strategically across the country with fewer locations, allowing greater income density within their gravitation pull. (Walmarts will often locate in towns with a trade area of 10 to 20,000 people; Targets rarely located in cities below 50,000.) The strategy worked well for Target, effectively carving itself out a demographic niche at the same time Kmart failed to compete with Sam Walton’s everyday low prices. Target further bolstered its cachet through a neater, more orderly appearance than Walmart, with more staff working harder to keep shelves well-stocked and items neatly folded.
But 2023 hasn’t been a winner for Target. Without delving too hard into the nuance, Target increasingly chose these last few years to take sides in some of the most polarizing political controversies facing the country. This culminated in the company’s decision in late spring 2023 to feature merchandise in celebration of June as Pride Month, which sizable numbers of parents deemed sexually explicit—and, in many locations, these Pride displays stood immediately adjacent to children’s clothing (and often included children’s clothing among the displays). The backlash and ensuing boycotts elicited a staggering negative impact on year-to-year sales; by early June the retail giant’s stock price had fallen 18% over the past year, it lost $15 billion in market capitalization value, and market analysts downgraded the stock ratings.
My July visit to the Potomac Yard Center Target was the first in quite some time, and while the density of customers felt a bit light compared to prior visits, I couldn’t really make a good judgment on this without an accurate count of who walks through the doors in a given duration in July compared to April, before the boycott. And I didn’t stand around making comparisons. The vintage retail video would probably be better at that. But the empty shelves are a direct manifestation of that low capitalization rate; perhaps most importantly, they offer evidence of how little time it takes to induce a scare among vendors with whom Target has undoubtedly forged long-term and lucrative contracts. It’s one thing for produce vendors to shift their confidence in the retailer; Target receives new stock in perishable goods a few times a week, or maybe even every day. But from the looks of my July visit, even stalwart vendors who ship clothes and linens to Target have revealed their anxiety after the retailer experienced a steep drop in customer purchases. And this was a Target in Alexandria—a region less likely to have mustered support for the boycott. Yet the shelves still look worse than Kmart in 1999—a business at the earliest stages of a decline that have all but annihilated the company.
That Kmart on the Vampire Robot video looked tidier and the shelves fully stocked—more orderly than I recall Target looking even before the recent boycott. And Target has always looked more put-together than Walmart, which undoubtedly limits staff otherwise devoted to maintenance; the rock-bottom prices come at a cost of appearance. Regardless, Kmart in a vintage retail video looked better than all of ‘em, suggesting that my initial Youtube meandering and the subsequent comparison reveal less about business vicissitudes and more about a diminution of standards affecting the retail sector, inextricably linked with an apathetic shopping public that can find both fully-stocked shelves and a tidy appearance…by shopping online.