Getting Down To The Last KMart

The New York Post reports that the KMart store in Avenel, New Jersey is closing. By itself, the closure of a discount store wouldn’t be news, of course–unless the closing of the store means that the countdown to the very last KMart in America is getting close to completion. With the closure of the Avenel store, there are only three KMarts left. Given the fact that KMarts have been closing regularly–here’s a report of the last Buffalo KMart closing, for example–we’ll soon be down to the last KMart, just as we are down to the last Blockbuster.

In a way, it’s hard to imagine that there are only three KMarts left, but in a way it’s hard to imagine that any KMarts are still around. It’s hard to imagine there are only three left because KMarts were once ubiquitous in America, with more than 2,000 stores that were found just about everywhere. KMart was a dominant low-cost retailer, and the KMart “blue light special”–a flashing blue light that alerted shoppers to especially cut-rate deals, along with an accompanying announcement that began “attention, KMart shoppers”–was the stuff of retail legend and the butt of countless jokes. Everybody laughed at those jokes, because everyone had been in a KMart. It was a kind of shared national experience, like the three television networks or McDonald’s french fries. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, no one could have predicted that KMart wouldn’t continue to be a blue light leader forever.

But viewed from today’s perspective, it’s hard to think that KMarts still exist. The store’s business model seems like a relic of a bygone era. It’s not that Americans aren’t still bargain hunters, of course, but now no one wants to think that they are buying something cheap, and the whole KMart linoleum-tiled experience screamed “cheap.” Now Americans do their bargain-hunting online, and not in the glare of a blue-light special.

The demise of KMart shows, once again, that the American economy is a constantly changing, ever-challenging interaction of consumer preferences, cultural trends, socio-economic movements, fads, and countless other factors all combined into one complex, roiling mass. If you lose the golden thread–as happened with KMart, and with Blockbuster and other forgotten retailers before it–the fall to failure and oblivion can be swift.

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