The Kmart store in my neighborhood closed last weekend. Now there’s a giant empty space in the Spirit Valley Mall in West Duluth, with a faded area above the doors where a sign once read: “Big Kmart.”
It took more than 30 years for the store to run itself out of business, and I’d probably need a degree in finance and a long look inside the books of parent company Sears Holdings Corporation to ever understand. How does a neighborhood’s only department store — a place that’s known for always having lines at the cash registers — go out of business?
The answer to that question might be that retail stores are struggling in general, and any store with massive overhead costs that provides a lousy shopping experience doesn’t stand a chance. And the West Duluth Kmart was a lousy shopping experience.
The lines at Kmart perhaps weren’t due to the high volume of traffic, but instead the understaffing at the store. Target or Wal-Mart might have a dozen checkouts open at once; Kmart seldom had more than two.
I’m not sure when the decline in customer service happened at Kmart, but I know that I first wrote about it in an article published in 2007. By then it was already a longstanding issue I’d grown frustrated enough about to sit down and type words with little regard for hurting the feelings of company shareholders. I’ll repeat much of that sentiment in this essay. Call it my summer rerun.
When Kmart first opened in West Duluth in the 1980s it replaced another discount department store chain that had bottomed out — Zayre Shoppers’ City. People my age and older fondly recall that store and the tricky task of trying to say “Shoppers’ City” ten times fast. While procuring toilet paper and dish soap, customers at Shoppers’ City could also buy the new ABBA record and/or a caged squirrel monkey. Seriously.
When Kmart opened up, it was a little different than Shoppers’ City, but not necessarily worse. The store did, however, have a reputation for less-than-fashionable clothing and cheesy gimmicks like the “Blue Light Special,” in which a mobile police light would illuminate to indicate a discount in a particular department.
“Attention Kmart shoppers,” you might hear a recorded voice announce. “We have a Blue Light Special in our automotive department. Fuzzy steering wheel covers are just $2.99.”
Aside from that kind of thing, however, Kmart seemed every bit as good to me as a Target or Wal-Mart back in those days. Maybe it was, or maybe I was young and naive. Maybe slurping on an Icee, “The Coldest Drink in Town,” from the Kmart cafeteria froze my brain and made the poor service at the store less noticeable until I outgrew the craving for slushed soda pop.
At some point long after 1991, when the West Duluth Kmart moved out of the old Shoppers’ City spot and into the local strip mall, I began to notice the inferiority of Kmart. But I kept shopping there because it was about a mile from my house, while Target and Wal-Mart were more than seven miles away.
Here’s part of what I wrote in 2007:
I have not traveled the world evaluating department stores, and I don’t want to exaggerate, but I can’t help stating this as plainly as I can: The West Duluth Kmart is the worst department store in the entire world, ever.
Whatever you need, West Duluth Kmart always seems to be out of it. Most of the prices are consistently high. Some products have no price sticker at all, leaving you to turn the item over repeatedly and study the shelf edge in frustration.
Don’t try to ask a clerk for help, because finding an employee roaming the aisles of Kmart will be about as easy as finding a Liberace album in prison.
Get this: If you do find someone, and receive the help you need, the employee will actually hand you a ticket that reads: “Glad I could help!”
That’s right, helping a customer is so out of the ordinary at Kmart, they made special tickets for customers to bring to the cashier so the employee can be commended. Apparently, the Kmart way to solve a customer’s problem is to offer that customer a task.
If you manage to find something you need to buy, have fun waiting in the one or two checkout lines that are between six and infinity customers deep, and move as fast as turtles having tantric sex.
If another clerk comes to the front, you might think she’ll open a new checkout aisle. Well, occasionally she will. So be ready to jump into the new line. Other times, however, she’s just up there to empty a register out for the night. So don’t leave the spot in your established line until you know for sure.
If you ever manage to purchase what you need, you’ll be treated to a two-foot long receipt for your one item. About one-third of the receipt is information on store specials, as if you can’t wait to come back. Another third asks you to complete a customer service survey. Consider mine completed.
Severals emails I received after publishing that article all had the same sentiment, which was basically “amen.” Here are some excerpts:
Your K-Mart article might be your best work yet. … I laughed my ass off. The last time I was in K-Mart they were giving away 2-liters of Dr. Pepper to anybody who filled out an application for a credit card. … I always check to make sure at least one employee looks like she’s on meth. I’m never disappointed.
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Great column on Kmart — and I thought ours in Superior was bad!
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I just had your article about the West Duluth Kmart forwarded to me by a coworker. I must say that I¹ve never had anyone so truly and rightly describe my exact experience, EVERY time. It¹s sad because I usually only go there if I absolutely have to, and many times it has saved me and I¹ve been thankful that it¹s there. But that¹s it. I can¹t believe they can even stay in business!
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Everything you stated in that article is 100% true. I say this as a Kmart employee of 1-1/2 years. Yes, I work at Kmart. And yes, I loved your article. I couldn’t have put the “Glad I could help” card situation any better than you. They are so inconvenient on multiple levels. I despise handing them out. … Employees hate them, management hates them. They are simply a waste of paper and time. I am also constantly scolded by customers for the lack of items we carry. If you think the West Duluth Kmart is bad, try shopping at the Miller Hill Kmart. I guarantee you will find even LESS there. When a customer can’t find what they are looking for, we recommend to them that they go online and purchase it there, where they then have to pay for shipping and handling. Lucky them. Why even bother stepping out of your house? I can tell ya now that we DON’T HAVE IT.
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Yeah, I get stuck going to that awful Kmart all the time, too, as I can WALK there. I especially like … the new Salvation Army bell ringer who screams as much joy as she can at you before you can run through the door. My girlfriend’s going to school to be a firefighter now, and she has a fire and rescue uniform she has to wear, and that old woman will scream, at the top of her lungs “GOD BLESS YOU FOR WHAT YOU DO FOR THE CHILDREN!!!”
I went on to become something like a councilor to friends who had bad experiences at Kmart. It made them feel better to talk about it. They knew I wouldn’t judge them. They knew I could offer support because I had been through what they had been through.
I continued to shop at Kmart until about five years ago, when someone explained what should have been obvious to me. “Unless you need something like a soccer ball or uncomfortable pants,” he said, “you can get whatever you need at Walgreens or CVS. You don’t need to go to a large department store. The time and grief you save will be worth the extra pennies … and I do mean pennies … you might spend.”
I didn’t believe that advice at first, but I figured I’d give it a try. It quickly dawned on me that my local Walgreens had as many checkouts as Kmart with a store that had to be one-sixth of the size. And it had everything I needed without all the things I didn’t need. So that ended my years of aggravation. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to stop shopping at Kmart.
In the years that followed, people continued to come to me with their Kmart horror stories, and each time I would offer my condolences while simultaneously basking in the affirmation of the soundness of my decision. I had overcome my oppressor, and I was qualified to help others.
Then the inevitable announcement came that Kmart would be closing its West Duluth store, along with 14 other locations. Clearly it wasn’t me who put the store out of business in 15 cities, but still, I wondered if I should feel bad about my local store closing … like in the way you feel bad when someone you didn’t like and avoided for many years suddenly dies. But should I have liberal guilt about the downfall of a capitalist giant? That would make no sense at all. I’m going conservative on this one. The market has spoken.
A month ago I decided to take a final stroll through Kmart during its going-out-of-business sale. It was kind of like when a combat veteran returns to Vietnam after all those years. I wanted one last look, and I also thought maybe there would be a weird store fixture I might find useful that might be marked at $8 or something. I didn’t find anything I needed, but I thought since I was in there already and allergy season was on the way I should buy a few boxes of facial tissue at discount.
I took them to the front of the store, where I found the same long, slow-moving checkout lines of the past. One of my old schoolmates was at the back of the line with her son. They had a rubber ball they were bouncing back and forth to each other. “We grabbed this so we’d have something to do while we are in line,” she told me.
I chatted with her for about three minutes, watched the line not move at all, then I put down my boxes of tissue and left.
This past Wednesday, after the Big K sign came down, I walked up to the store entrance one final time. The last few things were being hauled out, so a door was propped open. I walked in and a woman immediately asked if she could help me. Ironically, that was sort of the best customer service I ever got there.
I told her I’d like to shoot a photo of the big empty store if it wasn’t too much trouble. I was already standing in a suitable spot to snap the picture.
“Why?” she asked.
I kind of stumbled at answering. I think I just said, “for nostalgia.” I probably should have said, “because it’s 2018 and people mindlessly take pictures of everything without being questioned about it.”
The woman gestured to a spot where three or four other workers were standing and asked them if my photograph request should be granted. They said nothing and didn’t seem to care, so I just lifted my phone and took one shot, then turned to leave. I couldn’t help but notice them shaking their heads at me like I must be some kind of imbecile.
My neighborhood has lost a large business and now has a giant, empty, bland-as-possible-looking building on the edge of it’s already bizarrely disjointed Ramsey Square — the public gathering place for community events like Spirit Valley Days.
Ten years from now I might feel bad about Kmart closing, if nothing new happens in that spot. But for now I’m going to feel good about it, believing someone will see opportunity in the aftermath of three decades of shoddiness.
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