Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 11, No. 3

January 16-22, 2003

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Don’t Go, Kmart: All Is Forgiven

Something’s always a little wrong in a Kmart,
which is as good a reason as any to love it.
— Hank Stuever, The Washington Post

Those words written a year ago this month got me to thinking. The more I got to thinking over the past year, the more I realized that despite all the little or not-so-little things that irritate me at Kmart, the bottom line is I want the doors of the bankrupt chain to remain open.

I admit that the Kmarts I frequent are rather frumpy. The aisles are narrow, merchandise is crowded and pawed over (with some of it on the floor or discarded in some other department by a shopper who had a change of mind. Price tags can be hard to find, as are sales personnel — and there are those constant and annoying “Kmart Shoppers,” attention-getting announcements over the PA system with their spiels about the latest in-house bargain.

Yet if for no other reason than to see what will happen next, I want Kmart to stay in business.

Let Me Count the Ways
I have other reasons as probably do many readers. At times the big K has some dandy sales, there’s a wide assortment of brand-name merchandise in its stores and everyday prices on some items that do-it-your-selfers need are hard to beat.

Wherever one goes, it’s quite likely there will be a Kmart around, so if you’re in Kalamazoo, San Diego, Boston or Bennington, you’ll not be far from a familiar store, which can be comforting. Regardless of size, Kmarts are not laid out too differently from one another, which means it’s less difficult to locate something than in a store one has never heard of.

In addition, it’s gotten where I’m bothered by the disappearance of big-name stores from the list of options when one is looking for something in particular. Caldor is gone; so is Ames, Woolworths, Wards, Bradlees, Tommy Tuckers and so many others whose names once were so familiar.

Most all of them were big stores in big chains, one-stop shopping opportunities with just about everything within their walls. Thus far, Kmart is a survivor, a place to go when the shopping list is long and contains everything from diapers and peanut butter to popcorn poppers, desks, bathing suits and motor oil. Even fast foods, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Kmart has it all (except, apparently, deep pockets for itself), and rated up very near the top in department store sales until Wal-Mart moved up big time from the South about a decade ago. It was the place to go not only if the shopping list was long and varied, but also for one seeking not just an affordable tab but bargains. Bargain-hunters could count on success on any day, not just on special sale days.

Yankees Love Bargains
You see, my heritage is New England Yankee. We’re not cheap, but we’re frugal. We look for value goods at a fair price, and we can’t stand to be ripped off. It irks us when at a supermarket’s kitchen goods section we see, say, wooden spoons at three for $1.97 when we can get three or even five for a buck at Kmart, Dollar General Store or the many other everything-for-a-buck stores sprouting up in shopping centers everywhere.

We’re old fashioned, of the philosophy a dollar saved is a dollar earned. It’s satisfying to get something of equal quality at half the price, not only for what we save, but also as a way of letting the supermarkets or whomever know they can’t put one over on us. That’s why you won’t see many Yankees in convenience stores. In Vermont such shops aren’t on every street corner.

Enter the Competition
Kmart was pretty much in a league of its own until Wal-Mart arrived. The many so-called 10-cent-store chains were shutting down, and the Big K cash registers were singing — though not infrequently one had to wait a bit too long for one’s turn to have the merchandise rung up. But, after a while you got used to it. If, the cart of goodies you were pushing carried a savings of 15 bucks or more, what’s 10 minutes in line?

Wal-Mart put the first big dent in Kmart with its fresh new stores with cheery greeters just inside the entrance, who, when asked where something was, walked you right to it — though it’s not always like that any more. Prices were comparable, for many items about the same as Kmart. But the greeters, the help in locating things and the glitter of a new store swayed many Kmart regulars. It seemed that not far from every Kmart, a Wal-Mart was being erected.

Meanwhile, Target, Dollar Tree and a profusion of other true dollar stores came on the scene. Dollar General was rejuvenated, and the warehouse shops like BJ’s, Cosco and Sam’s Clubs drummed up big business, all taking bites out of Kmart sales. By last year, there came the shocking news that in only five weeks, the Big K lost $1 billion and was in bankruptcy.

That’s when I began to worry. Another familiar name threatened, and that a place where telephone or electrical cords were cheap, do-it-yourself essentials and tools were likewise, as were notebooks and other home-office sundries, brand-name hot chocolate and so many other items.

Help Wanted
I began to appreciate Kmart — if not to forget those frustrating experiences in their stores like the time I had been shopping late, got pangs of hunger and headed for the restaurant of the store on Ritchie Highway south of Glen Burnie. At 20 minutes before closing time, I ordered a diet soft drink and slice of pizza. It was delicious.

I was still hungry, wife Lois was out of town and I didn’t feel like preparing anything to eat when I got home, so I ordered another piece to make a meal. As the counter women checked out the long strip of paper listing the day’s receipts, she told me it was too late. I couldn’t buy anything. The cash register was closed — 15 minutes before the store closed.

I could understand that, but not when a minute later, I saw her take all the pans with pizza remaining on them and empty them into a garbage can. Kmart lost the chance to reduce its debt by a buck or so — and I had to go elsewhere.

Last summer, I hit the Kmart in Crofton when the “Kmart Shoppers” announcement told of a paint sale. I needed house paint, two gallons, and I quickly spotted popular name brands at about half price. I found gallons of outside white, but no two of the same brand or shade.

I finally hunted down a salesperson and asked for a second gallon of either of the two types I chose — only to be told I’d have to come back tomorrow. She didn’t know where to look for it. Kmart lost more potential profit.

At the big Annapolis Kmart south of the city, last fall in the sporting goods department behind the glass panel of a display case, I spied a hunting knife that interested me. It took 10 minutes to find a sales person, and he didn’t have a key. He promised to find someone who did. That was the last time I saw him or anyone else. I wasted a half-hour. Kmart possibly lost a hundred bucks at the cash register.

It all adds up, and how many customers have like stories to tell? Maybe a bit more service is the answer.

Many of us want to see the old-time chains survive. We’ve become accustomed to them, their wares and their prices. We can take the clutter, reasonable waits, even the “Welcome Kmart shoppers …” We just want someone in their stores to help us spend our money.

The ball is in their court.

Enough said.

Copyright 2003
Bay Weekly