It's an Enron world and I'm wearing Kmart underwear

On the day that Kmart declared bankruptcy, I stopped at the Carson City store to spend $10 for a child's birthday gift. I violated all my own shopping rules: no list, I was hungry, too much time to wander aimlessly.

As expected, I emerged 35 minutes and $29.53 later with a birthday gift that only cost $5 because it was on sale, a bag of Valentine Tootsie Rolls ($1.75) a videotape of still more music from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"($12.99) and two goofy little key chain watches with recorder clips and photo frames ($3.99 each, on sale).

This Enron approach to shopping seems to be what got Kmart in trouble.

My example notwithstanding, I believe if a trusted core of Kmart shoppers ran Kmart instead of corporate-types, the retail giant would not be in so much trouble.

The experienced Kmart shopper is thrifty, sticks to a budget, watches for sales, and buys in bulk. Take this week's advertising circular, for example. When the men's Fruit of the Loom Golden Blend Pocket-Ts are five for $10 instead of $3.99 each, we stock up. Need a laminator? Through Saturday, it's $17.99 for the 4-inch model and $39.99 for the 9-inch.

Some of us can hearken back to the days before there ever was a Kmart.

We know the K stands for Kresge -- Sebastian S. Kresge -- who opened his first store in Detroit in 1899. Where I grew up in Ohio, Kresge's battled it out with Woolworth's. As kids, we could walk to Woolworth's, but shopping at Kresge's meant an adventurous trip downtown on the bus.

Kresge's morphed into Kmart in 1962.

As I grew older, I kind of disdained Kmart as too frumpy, not hip enough for the young urban professional image I was trying to create. I'm glad those days are over and I have returned to the relaxed Kmart fold of khakis, jeans and comfortable shoes.

My daughter's first pair of shoes were Blue Light specials, tiny patent leather Mary Janes for less than $5. She rode her first merry-go-round in front of a Kmart in St. Louis, Mo. I finally pried her off after six rides. It was worth the $1.50 investment to see the smile on her face.

Like me shopping on an empty stomach, Kmart pigged out in the 1980s and early 90s gobbling up various retailers including Walden Book Co., Builders Square, PayLess Drug Stores Northwest, the Borders bookstore chain and the Sports Authority.

We didn't want to read! We wanted to buy giant submarine sandwiches for 99 cents, deluxe soft toilet seats for $9.88 instead of $12.96.

In 1990, Wal-Mart passed Kmart in sales. Kmart fired back by opening its first Super K, offering groceries, fresh foods and general merchandise 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Toward the mid-90s, Kmart started unloading retailers like Office Max and the Sports Authority to raise money.

In 1997, Kmart introduced the Big Kmart store format, apparently because Super Kmart wasn't big enough. The idea was to introduce a larger version of traditional Kmart stores intended "to improve the customer's shopping experience" with bigger stores and more stuff.

In late 1999, Kmart started its online retailer, and looks like it's been downhill every since with top management changes, a refocus on shorter lines, better stocked stores and downsizing from "big" back to "super." Finally, bankruptcy protection.

Kmart has been accused of not keeping up with the times, of continuing to stock dowdy clothes while trendier discount retailers like Target attracted younger, more affluent shoppers. Much has been made of Martha Stewart's ties to Kmart.

Frankly, I find Martha the person a little scary. Her towels, however, and dish cloths are great. In fact, this week All Martha Stewart Everyday bed pillows, mattress pads and blankets are 20 percent off.

On Tuesday, the day the news broke that Kmart was filing for bankruptcy protection, the Carson City parking lot was about half full, what you would expect midweek and midafternoon. The store was bustling. Bright helium balloons floated as if by magic over "Clearance" racks and the famed blue-light specials beckoned.

If Kmart was in some kind of financial difficulty, these shoppers weren't concerned. There were about four checkstands operating and I settled in to wait in the line I perceived to be the shortest when, miracle of miracles, "no waiting on aisle 9" drifted over the airways.

With the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, I easily maneuvered my cart to the front of the line. After my five purchases, I "saved" $17.23 and left the store, as happy as if a blue-light special sign was flashing over my head.

Sheila Gardner is night desk editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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