Yesterday’s Food And Retail by Grady Ellis (Editorial)
Yesterday’s Food and Retail by Carrollton resident Grady Ellis is an editorial series brought to you by The City Menus, LLC. The following piece is unedited and in its original state. In no way does it reflect the views or opinions of The City Menus, LLC or its additional contributors.
We hope that you enjoy this series!
From 1978 until 2016, Kmart was a mainstay shopping store in Carrollton. It was a vital piece to the landscape of the Bankhead Corridor, serving as an anchor of sorts to the other businesses along Bankhead Highway. As we know from the news, the longtime retailer is struggling and has closed a lot of stores in recent years. Let’s go back now and look at the makings of the legend of Kmart and the reasons this American classic has struggled in the 21st century.
Sebastian Kresge, a traveling salesman, met Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the legendary five and dime, Woolworth. Selling to his locations in 1897, Kresge would invest $6,700 dollars he had saved into a dime store in Memphis, Tennessee. He would be joining a former customer and founder of another legendary five and dime, James McCrory. They would soon open a second store in Detroit, and two years later Kresge would sell his share in the Memphis store, plus remit $3,000 back to McCrory. Kresge then formed the Kresge-Wilson Company with his brother in law, Charles J. Wilson. In 1912, the company was incorporated on the New York Stock Exchange as The S.S. Kresge Company, and the legend had already begun growing into what we know today as Kmart.
S.S. Kresge was one of the many dime stores of the early 20th Century, and as expected with The Great Depression hitting in 1929, growth was brisk. As World War II came and passed, S.S. Kresge kept up with rivals Woolworth and McCrory’s. As the 1960s approached and people began to move from the city to the suburbs, Kresge followed suit.
On March 1, 1962, the first Kmart store opened in the Detroit suburb of Garden City, Michigan. Also of note, Target would open its first location in Roseville, Minnesota and Walmart would debut July 2, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Longtime Five and Dime Rivals, W.T. Grant and Woolworth’s would also debut their discount stores, but Kmart hit the ground running. Eighteen stores opened in 1962, and soon Kmart became the number two store in the United States, behind Sears, and until 1990 the top Discount Store in the United States.
Through the 1960s, Kmart was a lot like what we’d find in Wal-Mart today. Until the 1970s, Kmart also had grocery stores that were located next door to each other with a connection between them called Kmart Foods. From having a Pharmacy to the Auto Center, during these early days you could one stop shop literally at these stores which offered such a variety of choices. It was a popular place for shoppers due to their famous Blue Light Special. Throughout the store, at any moment a blue light would begin to flash, and someone announced where the special was located inside the store. To accommodate shoppers, usually in the corner or the back like at our local store, there was a cafeteria. In the front would be a deli that’d sell subs, ice cream, popcorn, and slushees. The cafeteria served breakfast and lunch, with many options to fill one’s stomach. Kmart kept growing, and in 1977, changed its name on the NYSE from S.S. Kresge Company to Kmart Corporation.
In 1978, Kmart would make their debut in Carrollton on Bankhead Highway. It was an instant hit! By this time, Kmart had gotten away from the grocery business, but our store had a deli when you walked inside and an Auto Center in the back of the store, The Eatery. For a time, Kmart was the top Discounter in Carrollton. But as the legend goes, once you reach the top, it’s downhill from there, and the same could be said in regards to Kmart.
Until Wal-Mart’s opening at Carrollton Crossroads in 1987, Kmart was the place to go in Carrollton, and it was the most modern shopping store. During this time, Kmart began to branch out, which some attribute to the current dilemmas the company faces today. Kmart shifted their focus toward other companies they had acquired or created like Sports Authority, Borders Books, Officemax, and Builder’s Square, to name a few. There was even an attempted short-lived stay in Eastern Europe. In November 1990, Wal-Mart took the top spot in the discount wars, but by that time, many Kmart stores were considered somewhat outdated and in decaying condition. Kmart peaked by 1992, and the signs of struggle showed in 1994 when 110 stores were closed throughout the United States. Kmart, as a company, had stretched too far out with their other companies. Trying to stay afloat, they would eventually sell off many of these. Meanwhile back home in Carrollton, and many towns throughout the area, Kmart still held its own against Walmart and Target who debuted in Carrollton in 1997.
The Carrollton Kmart received its only renovation in 2000. The former Auto Center was turned into additional sales space, and out was The Eatery and deli. Additional closures began to occur all over the U.S. in the early 21st Century, starting in 2000. In 2002, Kmart filed for Bankruptcy Protection and closed over 300 stores, and 326 more in 2004. LaGrange and Newnan would lose their locations in this time, and in 2003, Kmart remerged from Bankruptcy woes as Kmart Holdings Company, a hedge fund controlled by Eddie Lampert.
In 2003, Kmart had its last successful year in terms of profit, and on November 17, 2004, Kmart announced its intentions to purchase the former top name in American Retail, Sears, for $11 billion. Sears, also a struggling store, appeared late into the discount wars, debuting in the early 2000s before the sale to Kmart. In the 00s, Kmart carried appliances and tools under the Kenmore and Craftsman brands. Some stores were even renovated into what was called the ‘orange’ prototype.
A few of the Auto Centers reopened as Sears Auto Center. The company name changed to the Sears Holdings Corporation and operated stores under both of the legendary names. It looked good and sounded good seeing the two companies together; a hybrid of Sears and Kmart, titled Sears Essentials. The debut was in 2005. Within a few years the hybrid proved to be unsuccessful and was converted to Sears Grand. None of these changes panned out, and Kmart’s struggles began to show again, and a common theme became commonplace with Kmart, once so well known for Blue Light Specials (that were stopped in 1990). More store closings began annually starting in 2010.
Kmart’s presence began to shrink, and closures would hit our area with Douglasville’s Kmart location closing in 2012. In 2016, Kmart’s closings included our store, as it closed in the spring of that year, and today is home to Robinson Salvage’s Overstock Warehouse.
Kmart is missed by many in Carrollton. It was the perfect alterative to Wal-Mart and Target for local shoppers for many years. The company today has its work cut out for them to make a comeback which is really, at this point, impossible.
Of the “Discounters”, when I think of those warm memories, I think of Kmart. I can still taste the fries in The Eatery. It was a comfortable store, and it was my Grandmother’s, my Mom’s, and a number of others in my family’s favorite Discount Chain.
Today the closest Kmart locations to Carrollton are located in Peachtree City and Mableton, Georgia. It’s sad to see a name that’s been a part of our lives for generations, from Kresge, to Kmart, slowly become past tense. Kmart was the first discount store and paved the way for the Discount Stores we know today. If only Kmart had focused on Kmart and kept up with the changes in retail better, Kmart would still rank on the top. It will always be at the top in my heart.
NOTES: S.S. Kresge, and Jupiter, a second variety store spun off from Kresge’s would remain until 1986, when Kmart sold the 76 remaining locations to McCrory. By 2002 these names would too become retail history when McCrory liquidated its remaining stores.