All too frequently, what I expect to be a “small” subject ends up blowing out of proportion. For example, the last two articles took significantly more time and effort than I expected. The research bore fruit, and I struggled to constrain my analysis to a mere 1,500 words. Now I’ve finally found a subject that I can keep (kinda) succinct, in no small part because it basically piggybacks on an article I wrote a few weeks ago: the sparseness of the shelves at the standard big-box budget department store, even if it’s one that the public largely perceives as successful like Target. The Target of 2023 still looks worse than 1999 footage from a failing competitor like Kmart, at least if the nostalgia videos, which a certain YouTube channel (Vampire Robot) curates, offer any evidence. But what about Westwood Kmart?
Now Kmart has achieved another sad milestone: its last location in New Jersey is closing its doors permanently in just a few days. This will reduce the once-mighty chain to a mere two locations in the US: one in Miami and another in far eastern Long Island (Montauk), New York. A handful exist in US principalities like Guam and the US Virgin Islands, but the total inventory of stores is down to about a half dozen. The drop is staggering, considering the longevity of this retailer, first born as the S.S. Kresge Company at the end of the 19th century. It began to operate under the Kmart name with the big-box prototype (at least 80,000 square feet of leasable space) in 1962. At its peak in the early 1990s, Kmart could claim almost 2,500 stores, and though Walmart unseated it as the top discounter about this same time, the decline was gentle for the next twenty years. The 2005 Sears-Kmart merger known as Sears Holdings Corporation, instigated after Kmart’s first Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, still took place at a time when Kresge’s legacy presided over 1,400 stores. But a near complete absence of profitable quarters resulted in a steady closure of underperforming locations.
A slow drip. Rarely more than fifty closures of either Sears or Kmart during that time, so the two brands still retained a fair degree of visibility, even if the parking lots were mostly empty. As recently as 2016, Kmart still claimed nearly 1,000 stores. But Kmart earned the unsavory reputation of being the third all-purpose discounter (a distant third), failing to find an audience of its own while Walmart effective captures the slightly below-average price points and Target won slightly above-average.
A handful more locations shuttered every season, like the one in the above photo, from Quakertown, Pennsylvania. A second bankruptcy filing in 2018—this time for Sears Holdings—put the two ailing brands in the crosshairs, and the COVID-19 pandemic prompted such aggressive closures that the two names turned into critically endangered species almost overnight. By the time state and local governments had begun easing social distancing measures, Kmart and Sears were down to a few dozen locations.
At the end of 2022, when Westwood, New Jersey still hosted the last Kmart in the state, it offered a perverse fascination for the dead mall enthusiasts. Vlogger Ian Martin, who primarily explores abandoned places, took an extensive tour of the Westwood Kmart location during the holidays. He did notice, to neither his nor my surprise, that select corners of the large property featured the characteristically empty shelves. Other predictable cost-saving measures caught his attention as well: rattly, poorly maintained air vents, burned out fluorescent lights, blocked off sections where merchandise is completely absent, including the well-known Garden Store. But other portions—probably even the majority—looked good. Great, even. On par with the tidy, carefully stocked Kmarts of 1999 that vlogger Vampire Robot so nostalgically covered, as I observed in my previous article. And much, much better than the 2023 Target that I featured a few weeks ago. Perhaps most striking, as Ian noted, is the fact that everything at the Westwood Kmart is marked down—discount tags (usually of at least 50%)—at every shelf or clothing rack. And the Westwood Kmart sold no candy, drinks, magazines, or any of the “impulse buy” products one expects to see waiting in line at the cashier. (No lines!)
Eight months later, another vlogger, Chris Cronin, toured the Westwood Kmart upon announcement that it would be closing. It still looked tidy—certainly better than many of the Targets I had seen the last few years—but huge portions were absent of merchandise. Chris’s most distinctive observation was that, on a corner on the exterior, the Westwood Kmart still featured a mounted pay phone. It wasn’t functional; no receiver. But such a sight would be unthinkable at a Walmart or Target; they upgrade their premises far too often. A few weeks later (mid September), a third vlogger called Fleabitten Adventures chronicled the Westwood Kmart as zero hour fast approached. The “EVERYTHING ON SALE” signs were bigger and more aggressive, but did that matter? Ian Martin’s visit nine months early revealed everything at a deep discount, even before the location had announced its closure.
At the end of this month, Westwood Kmart will turn off its flickery lights permanently. And, domestically, the chain will be down to two. The word “extinction” has rarely applied so aptly to a long-established business. It really does resemble the efforts to save the black rhinoceros or ivory billed woodpecker, two species that, after the numbers had declined beyond a point of no return, lost their high-profile status because there ere just so few remaining to even promulgate the crisis—or to even justify saving. It’s just too late.
Miami and Long Island. It seems obvious that Transformco, the company reformed after Sears Holdings declared bankruptcy, exists solely to eke whatever revenue stream might be left by a few remaining showrooms: one in the northeast of the country and one in the southeast. It’s a tactic that Transformco and Sears Holdings have applied for two decades. Assemble whatever merchandise has sat in the back of warehouses for years (maybe decades). Sell it at a marked-down price; the suppliers have terminated agreements with Kmart long ago. Harness the remaining staff to help maintain the well-stocked areas; they don’t need to focus on much else. Keep it looking good enough, or full enough, to create the illusion of prosperity. Operate under the mentality (not sure it’s viable) that racks sell better when they’re mostly full rather than mostly empty. At least if part of the place looks full, it can incentivize people to keep walking through the entry doors. Once a rack gets cleared of merchandise, either roll out a new pallet of inventory from the warehouse, or, if nothing remains, leave it vacant and close off that portion of the floor space.
Keep this tactic up until there’s nothing left to sell. It’s a sad way to bid farewell to a 20th century American retail institution; almost better when there’s still a few hundred left and they close all at once, like Bed Bath and Beyond did a few months ago. But this is goodbye for Kmart. And, in a matter of months, probably the same for Sears.