1962 was the year of the discount department store. Although there are examples of discount houses that predated that year, especially in the Northeast, most of the biggest names opened their doors in 1962. Four retailers from this “Class of 1962” have made it to 2021. Three are thriving but one, regarded as an industry icon, is barely open and has been fading away for decades.
The S. S. Kresge Co., the country’s third-largest variety store chain in 1962, decided to establish a discount store prototype. After studying the competition and learning what did and didn’t work, Kresge developed a new division called “Kmart.” It offered low prices, large parking lots, late hours, and, most-importantly, name-brand merchandise.
Early promotional material guaranteed Kmart shoppers “Satisfaction Always” with a store that would be clean, well-maintained and well-stocked. Kresge’s “thrifty credit plan,” used for large purchases, was also heavily advertised. When the first Kmart discount store opened on March 1, 1962, in Garden City, Michigan, 4000 curious customers waited in line for the doors to finally unlock.
Kresge intended for Kmart to have a national presence. By the end of 1962, 18 Kmarts were in operation. Within a decade, that number swelled to 800.
As discount store competition intensified in the 1980s, Kmart expanded beyond its means. It took over storefronts vacated by other failed discounters and neglected its aging fleet of long-established locations.
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