At last two Kmarts in Metro Detroit, everything must go

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

No matter how much Kmart changed, Traci Gerick stayed the same.

The discount department store chain, born in Garden City in 1962, changed its logos over the years. Changed its name: Today's Kmart, Super Kmart Center, Big Kmart, Super Kmart. Changed its colors, even: a few stores switched from the familiar red and blue to a peculiar lime green and gray.

Gerick stayed loyal — and she says she'll be loyal to the end, come February, when the last two Kmarts in Metro Detroit fade into the strip mall of memory.

Transform Holdco LLC, owner of the tattered remnants of Kmart and Sears, announced Thursday that 96 more stores in the chains would be closing. In the mid-1990s, Kmart alone had 2,323 outlets in the U.S. and another 163 elsewhere. Now the two, combined, will have 182 stores.

Founded in Garden City in 1962, the final two Kmarts in the Detroit area — in Warren and Waterford — will close in February.

"I knew something was going on," said Gerick, 55. She'd watched the back of her favorite retailer move closer to the front the last few months, with more and more square footage blocked by barricades and lawn furniture.  "Now I'm going to be all melancholy."

Gerick  grew up near the Kmart on 10 Mile Road in Warren and still lives and works just a few miles away. School supplies, pet fish, a deli ... "It had everything," she said.

Today it has big signs in the windows saying, "Store Closing Sale." So does the store in Waterford, leaving Marshall the only city in Michigan with a former retail icon that can trace its roots to S.S. Kresge's five-and-dime in downtown Detroit in 1898.

"I expect they'll be gone completely in three to five years," said Ken Dalto, a retail and management consultant in Bingham Farms. "Maybe two years."

Realistically, few will miss them.

"They don't have an identity anymore," Dalto said. Wal-Mart is cheaper, Meijer is stronger, Target is cleaner, Costco is bulkier, Amazon is omnipresent.

Kmart fought the wrong battles, he said, trying to trade punches with Wal-Mart and gravitating too late to the Internet.

It had a succession of management teams and strategies in the '90s and early 2000s, none of them effective and one of them a loser at trial; free-spending CEO Charles Conaway, accused of misleading investors before a bankruptcy in 2002, ultimately paid a $5.5 million settlement.

It had a remarkable track record of unwise acquisitions, start-ups and concepts, including Borders, Builders Square, Office Square and even Kwash, a coin laundry attached to the Kmart in Iowa City.

When the original Kmart on Ford Road died in early 2017, it was a mercy killing. Shelves were empty, floors were cracked and gouged, and the employees wore coats and gloves because there was no discernible heat.

The store in Warren fared better, Gerick said — maybe not pristine, but at least passable. And it was hers.

"My mom loved Kmart's, and she passed that on to me," she said.

Way back, she'd save her babysitting money to buy 45s for 97 cents and albums for less than they cost at another ghost of local retail, Harmony House. Then when she was a young mom, the Little Caesars near the back "was how I bribed my kids to behave. Bread sticks and a frozen Coke, that was a slam dunk."

Eventually, she said, "I sort of warmed up to Wal-Mart. But Kmart is still my favorite."

The K in Kmart stood for company founder Sebastian Spering Kresge, who came to Detroit when William McKinley was president. McKinley, to add another item from the perspective aisle, was the last president to have fought in the Civil War.

By 1924, Kresge is said to have been worth $375 million. He died at 99 in 1966, four years after the first Kmart opened to huge crowds buying everything from furniture to tires.

"In the old days, they were the discounter with the best-quality products at the most reasonable prices," Dalto said. "For the working class and the middle class, that was the store to go to."

Then competitors improved on the Kmart model and left the chain flailing.

"They should have repositioned," Dalto said. "They could have cut down the size, focused on two or three niche areas to build the store around, maybe moved to urban areas."

Instead, he said, Kmart kept trying to be "an everything store." A second bankruptcy filing came in 2018, with more store closings.

Thursday brought still more bad news, another flicker of the blue light.

In Waterford and Warren, everything must go — clothes, shoes, jewelry, housewares, history.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn