How did Kmart suddenly become unpopular among shoppers?


Joshua Trujillo/Seattle Pi

A store closing sign lies above a Big Kmart sign in Seattle, WA during January 2013. Less than 300 Kmart and Sears locations will be open throughout the country starting in 2020.

Blake Kingsbury, Photojournalist

Nowadays, whenever someone thinks of Kmart, they think of a store that was great. They think of a store that had a popularity level that rivals the popularity levels of well-known stores today, such as Target and Walmart. But what exactly caused people to think this about Kmart at this point in time? What events took place that caused Kmart to declare bankruptcy and eventually become an afterthought by frequent shoppers?

In 1994, Kmart was at its peak. Sales were at an all-time annual high for the store at $37 billion and more than 2,300 stores had been opened throughout the country. Kmart was such a big deal that it was the most well-known variety superstore in the country. It was so popular at that time that the founder of Walmart, Sam Walton, envied everything about the store.  

Though it seemed as if there was nothing that could stop Kmart from continuing their success in sales for the many following years, things would change very quickly. Just seven years after Kmart had its highest sales ever, the company declared bankruptcy. Walmart and Target had both very quickly overtaken Kmart as the top two retailers in the United States. 

One of the reasons for Kmart’s quick decline is the decisions that they made with other companies. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Kmart bought many unrelated brands such as the Walton Book Company, OfficeMax, and Borders. Instead of focusing on upgrading the quality of their stores, the company focused on doing things of no real importance, assuming that shoppers would continue to shop at the store anyways.

Another reason for the speedy downfall of the shop is the lack of focus on a certain brand strategy. Kmart never really had a certain “thing” that stood out as separate from Walmart or Target. Walmart has always stood out from others in the fact that all their items are cheap, but of good enough quality to sell frequently. Target has stood out from the pack in selling higher-end clothing, furniture, and various other items for reasonable prices. There was nothing special about Kmart that made people look forward to shopping there for an extended amount of time. They didn’t sell many designer clothes or anything else of high quality, and while their prices were fair, they weren’t as low as Walmart, and the fact that they simply didn’t have a brand strategy caused them to fall behind Target in popularity. 

After buying Sears in 2005, another store that has become forgotten by many, a holding company was created to control both the stores known as Sears Holdings. A holding company is a company that does not actually conduct any operations or ventures associated with itself; it simply exists for the purpose of owning assets. In October 2018, after Kmart and Sears had failed to improve sales in either of their stores (even after launching the “Shop Your Way” program that let shoppers save money at Kmart, Sears, and other stores apart of the program by simply shopping at those particular stores), Sears Holdings filed for bankruptcy. The repercussions of this bankruptcy included the closing of more Kmart and Sears shops. As of last August, 100 more Kmart and Sears locations will close by the end of this year. Between the two of them, only a little less than 300 stores will remain open by the beginning of 2020.

Kmart was once a store that was revered as the best of the best in retail. However, just a few mistakes by the company’s marketers, and the store quickly had its wheels fall off within years due to retailers such as Walmart and Target starting to grow in popularity at just the right time. Though Kmart tried as fast and hard as possible to regain ground on the two new sheriffs in town, it was simply too late. If Kmart were to somehow make a comeback in the retail industry, it is unknown who and how many people would shop there. Zach Ashton (12) said, “I more likely than not would not be interested in shopping at Kmart even if a revival were to occur.” While all Kmart stores will almost certainly be gone in the next few years, the superstore will never be forgotten as the first popular retailer in America. And of course, we will never forget the blue light specials!