'End of an era': Last Kmart in area set to close The Richmond region's last Kmart store closing this month: 'This is my grandma's store'

Richmond Times-Dispatch |

1899: Sebastian Spering Kresge opened a five-and-dime store in downtown Detroit.

1962: Under the leadership of Harry B. Cunningham, who became Kresge president in 1959, the first Kmart discount department store opened in 1962 in Garden City, Mich. with 17 additional Kmart stores opened that year.

1966: Sales at 162 Kmart stores and 753 Kresge stores topped $1 billion.

1972: Kmart opens its first Richmond area store on Midlothian Turnpike near Chippenham Parkway.

1977: S.S. Kresge changed its name to Kmart Corp. to reflect that 95 percent of sales were generated by Kmart stores.

1977: Kmart opens a store on Glenside Drive in Henrico County.

1990: Kmart Corp. unveils a new logo.

1991: Kmart opens first Kmart Supercenter, in Medina, Ohio.

1994: Kmart Corp. announced plans to sell stock in four specialty store divisions - The Sports Authority, Borders-Waldenbooks, OfficeMax and Builders Square.

1997: Kmart announces plans to open a new Big Kmart store near Regency Mall and describes plans to remodel ts existing Richmond area stores to the Big Kmart format over two years.

2002: Kmart Corp. and 37 U.S. subsidiaries and affiliates file chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy in January. It announced in March that it will close 284 of its more than 2,100 stores and cut 22,000 jobs as parts of its restructuring, about 9 percent of its workforce.

2003: Kmart emerges from bankruptcy with 600 fewer stores and new leadership. Investor Edward Lampert's company, ESL Investments, converts financial claims against Kmart into stock and will own a 49 percent stake in the retailer.

2005: Shareholders approve Kmart Holding Corp.'s $12.3 billion acquisition of Sears, Roebuck and Co., clearing the way for the two to merge. The new company is called Sears Holding Corp.

2012: Sears Holding closes Kmart stores on Glenside Drive in Henrico County, at 11003 Hull Street Road in Chesterfield County and on Midlothian Turnpike in Richmond.

2015: Kmart at 116 Southgate Square in Colonial Heights closed

2018: The Richmond region's last Kmart store, on Nine Mile Road, is scheduled to close at the end of January.

Parent company: Sears Holdings Corp., which also owns Sears stores.

Headquarters: Hoffman Estates, Illinois

Locations over the years: 510 stores as of the end of , compared to 801 at the end of ; 1,387 stores in ; 2,121 stores in .

Kmart is closing its last Richmond-area location this month, shuttering the store on Nine Mile Road in eastern Henrico County and ending the national retailer's 45-year presence in the area.

"It's kind of signaling the end of an era," said customer Meredith Conyers, 30, as he left the store last week.

Conyers reminisced: "I remember when Kmart was about as big as Walmart." But the retailer has not had much of an online presence, he added.

"That's pretty much where everything is going now," he said.

Kmart at one time was bigger than Walmart.

The Nine Mile Road Kmart store is one of 45 Kmarts and 18 Sears stores across the country that owner Sears Holdings Corp. announced in November that it would close by the end of January. The Sears store in Colonial Heights also is closing.

On , Sears Holdings announced additional closings. Another 64 Kmart stores and 39 Sears stores will close in March and April. None of the stores on the new list is in the Richmond area, and Sears stores continue to operate at Virginia Center Commons and Chesterfield Towne Center.

The company, in a statement about the latest closings, said it will continue to close unprofitable stores: "Sears Holdings continues its strategic assessment of the productivity of our Kmart and Sears store base and will continue to right size our store footprint in number and size ... as we transform our business model so that our physical store footprint and our digital capabilities match the needs and preferences of our members."

That's a mouthful, but can the iconic retailer survive?

Two decades ago, Kmart had more than 2,000 stores in the U.S.

Today, not counting the forthcoming closings, the struggling retailer has about 500 stores and continues to shrink its retail footprint.

The company remains positive on the brand: "We remain committed to our Kmart stores and brand. We have been working hard to make Kmart a more fun, engaging place to shop, powered by our integrated retail innovations and Shop Your Way," said a statement provided by Howard Riefs, Sears Holdings spokesman.

At one time, Kmart had at least nine area locations. The chain's first area store opened in 1972 on Midlothian Turnpike near Chippenham Parkway in South Richmond.

A store opened in 1977 on Glenside Drive at West Broad Street in Henrico.

***

At one time, Kmart was the discount department store leader in the U.S.

The store's lineage dates back to five-and-dime retailer S.S. Kresge Co., which was founded in 1899 in Detroit. In , Kresge branched out, opening a new concept store, and the first Kmart opened in Garden City, Mich.

"Kmart kind of invented the discount department store idea," said Bruce A. Huhmann, professor and chairman of the department of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Business.



"It was this new idea of a cheaper shopping alternative, especially geared toward the growing suburbs, whereas most department stores were still located in downtown areas."

"(Kmart) had huge growth in the 1960s and 1970s. It really wasn't until Target and Walmart started to emerge nationally that they had some problems," Huhmann said.

Sam Walton opened the first Walmart store in in Rogers, Ark. The first Target store opened in May of the same year when department store operator The Dayton Co. opened a new mass-market discount store in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn.

Growth was steady by all three retailers, but Kmart led the pack. By 1966, Kresge operated 162 Kmart stores and 753 Kresge stores, with sales topping $1 billion.

In comparison, in 1966 there were 24 Walmart stores. And after four years, Target had 17 stores in four states.

But Kmart's lead didn't last.

Walmart began to win over customers with low prices. Target won with image. Kmart was somewhere in between, Huhmann said.

"In retail management, which is one of the courses that I have taught before, one of the things we look at is the squeeze in the middle. It's very hard to be in that middle position," Huhmann said.

"Walmart had its everyday low prices ... prices as low as possible for the customers. Whether it is true or not, that is how they positioned themselves in the consumer's mind. Target said, 'We are a discounter, but we are also stylish.' They brought in designers and always had very interesting home goods. They were almost like a luxury discounter, fashion-forward discounter.

"Kmart was caught in the middle - not being as inexpensive as Walmart in the consumer's mind but not being as fashionable as Target," Huhmann said.

Walmart entered the Richmond market in when it opened a store in Colonial Heights. The chain's stores in Short Pump and in Mechanicsville opened later that year.

Target opened its first Richmond area location in Colonial Heights in .

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Kmart filed for bankruptcy in 2002 - the largest retail bankruptcy at the time - when the company had 2,114 stores.

Analysts said then that the company had shifted too far away from its core business. Kmart bought the Waldenbooks store chain in 1984, PayLess Drug Stores in 1985, The Sports Authority in 1990 and OfficeMax in 1991, among other businesses. Though the subsidiaries were later sold, damage had been done.

"Kmart, Walmart and Target were launched in the same year, and Kmart was the big winner and flew ahead and was the biggest consumer discount chain," said Kelly O'Keefe, professor of brand management at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter.

"But then Kmart expanded into all of these different stores, and the company lost its core focus," O'Keefe said.

In 2005, Kmart and Sears merged, but both retailers have not been able to rekindle America's interest in their iconic brands.

"Kmart's demise started more than 20 years ago as Walmart, Target and a range of retailers and, in some cases, whole new formats led by Costco and warehouse clubs stepped up rollouts of new brick-and-mortar stores nationwide," said Frank Badillo, director of MacroSavvy Resource Network, a Henrico County-firm that tracks retail trends.

"Now, the online retailers are putting the final nails in the coffin as Kmart is among the physical store retailers hurt most by the latest wave of competition."

Competitors had better supply networks, store brands, shopper experiences and online technologies, among other things, Badillo said.

"To some extent, Kmart was fighting the retail life cycle, where the early retail leaders eventually give way to innovative new entrants," he said.

Some industry analysts have come down hard on Kmart's leadership, saying it did not do enough to update stores, for instance.

***

Kmart's efforts of late have not resonated with many customers.

The company in 2015 tried bringing back its iconic "Blue Light Specials" - temporary in-store flash sales announced over the store intercom and with a flashing blue light that was moved around the store. But sales have continued to decline.

Even as some other struggling brick-and-mortar retailers reported a sales uptick over the recent busy holiday season, Kmart said sales were down. Comparable store sales at Kmart and Sears for November and December declined in the range of 16 to 17 percent, the company reported two weeks ago. The company's fiscal year ends in January.

"This is my grandma's store," said shopper Sarah Chappelle, who said she has rarely shopped at Kmart in recent years.

"To me, they were expensive. And they didn't always have what I wanted," Chappelle said. "I love Walmart. They have variety."

Walmart last spring opened a new Supercenter about a half-mile from the Nine Mile Road Kmart in the Eastgate Town Center.

"(Kmart) has Jaclyn Smith and Joe Boxer (clothing lines) and that's it," she said.

Conyers said he actually preferred shopping at Kmart over the Eastgate Walmart because the Walmart stays so busy.

Shopper Inez Crews said she was a regular Kmart customer until she could no longer reliably find the one product she would make a special trip to Kmart to get.

"I used to come in here just to buy pantyhose," she said. "The reason I would stop shopping here is I would come in, I would pick up the package and the package was empty. People were stealing."

She also wasn't a fan of the vibe Martha Stewart was supposed to bring to the retailer.

The Nine Mile Road store is scheduled to close .

Shoppers were nostalgic but not necessarily heartbroken.

"Since I can remember, I have always loved Kmart rather than Walmart," said shopper James McCormick of Hopewell.

"Kmart always seemed to have more of a comfortable feel about it unlike the Walmart big-box stores. ... I will miss Kmart. Their Blue Light Specials and all the sales," he said. "I will miss it."

TLSmith@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6572

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