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End of the Blue Light Special: Kmart Is Down to Three Stores Across America

Photo Credit: American Stock / Getty Images
Photo Credit: American Stock / Getty Images

If you’re looking to purchase household goods or other products, it’s pretty likely you’d go to Walmart or Target. You may even try Marshalls or Macy’s before hitting the online retailers. The last store you’d probably think of going to these days, however, is Kmart. The retail giant that once operated 2,486 stores around the world – with 2,323 in the United States alone – now operates only three stores across the continental US. 

While we prepare to bid farewell to the retail icon, let’s take a look back at Kmart’s history.

Kmart hit its stride in the ’70s

Businessman Sebastian Spering Kresge founded the S.S. Kresge Corporation in 1899. Initially with two stores, the first in Memphis and the second in Detroit, his company quickly grew, totaling 682 before the start of the Second World War in 1940.

Management prepares to open a new store in NYC in 1974
A new Kmart Store Opens at W. Belleview Ave. And S. Broadway in 1974 (Photo Credit: The Denver Post via Getty Images)

On January 25, 1962, the first Kmart branded store was opened in Garden City, Michigan. The brand soon expanded with the introduction of supermarkets called Kmart Foods, and the company officially changed its name to Kmart in 1977.

Aside from paving the way for the emergence of other future superstores, Kmart may be just as well known for its famous “Blue Light Special,” a blue flashing police siren that would be introduced by the spoken words, “attention Kmart shoppers.” This indicated a surprise special for the ensuing 15 minutes. The popular gimmick was introduced in 1965 by a store manager who was looking for a way to move poorly selling or discontinued merchandise. Blue light specials continued until 1991.

Growth in the 1980s and beyond

The 1980s saw further expansion with the company opening its 2,000th store in 1981. This was quickly followed by another 55 by the end of the year. The retailer enjoyed great success throughout the decade and was the largest US retailer, second only to Sears.

Jaclyn Smith, Kathy Ireland, and Martha Stewart at a Kmart store
Jaclyn Smith, Kathy Ireland, and Martha Stewart during Retail Giant Kmart relaunches it’s BlueLight Special at Astor Place Kmart in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by RJ Capak/WireImage)

Top celebrities like Jaclyn Smith, Martha Stewart, and Kathy Ireland sold product lines under their own names and helped to bring a touch of class to a brand that had come to be seen as “bargain basement” due to their low prices. The first major blow to Kmart’s dominance came in the form of Walmart’s expansion in the ’90s. Walmart had been growing steadily throughout the ’80s but seemed to completely take over the concept of a superstore in the following decades, outselling and killing any competitor within driving range.

Then came the rise of online commerce and Amazon.

The brand just couldn’t compete with online retailers

While some of its competitors were able to adapt to the changing world, Kmart didn’t. On January 22, 2002, the company filed for bankruptcy. Six hundred stores were closed, including all those in Alaska, and thousands of employees were laid off. In an attempt to save the brand, and perhaps return it to the glory it once felt, Kmart merged with Sears in 2004. Nothing, however, could save Kmart from the slow decline that it had started on.

The entry of a Kmart store
A large Kmart logo sits on the floor of a Kmart store in Norridge, Illinois. The store was one of nine test stores where some Sears-brand merchandise was sold. (Photo Credit: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Sears Holdings, the parent company of Kmart, filed for bankruptcy on October 15, 2018. This was soon followed by the closure of 142 stores, which was to be the start of a continual shutdown of Kmart stores across the United States.

As of February 2023, Kmart operates just nine stores, three of which are in the continental United States. These are located in Miami, Florida, Westwood, New Jersey, and Bridgehampton, New York. Other locations are located in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Guam. The brand still does well in Australia and New Zealand with 323 stores across the two nations.

More from us: These 10 Mega Companies Got Started in Garages

Other companies, like Blockbuster, received cult followings in their dying years. Kmart, however, seems to be disappearing entirely without anyone noticing. So, attention Kmart shoppers, the blue light is on. Load the kids into the minivan and take them to the closest store to share your memories.

Ryan McLachlan

Ryan McLachlan is a historian and content writer for Hive Media. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Classical Studies and his Master of Arts in History from the University of Western Ontario. Ryan’s research focused on military history, and he is particularly interested in the conflicts fought by the United Kingdom from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands War.

Ryan’s other historical interests include naval and maritime history, the history of aviation, the British Empire, and the British Monarchy. He is also interested in the lives of Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Nelson. Ryan enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and sharing history with anyone who will listen.

In his spare time, he enjoys watching period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries and Ripper Street and also enjoys reading classical literature and Shakespeare. He also plays football and is an afternoon tea connoisseur.