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Opinion: The ‘K’ in ‘Kmart’ had strong local ties

Once it was one of the most famous retail brands in the country, but today there are just three Kmart stores left - Westwood (Bergen County), New Jersey; Bridgehampton, (Suffolk County, Long Island) New York; and Miami. There are a few others scattered elsewhere in the world.

The most recent to close was in April in Avenel (Middlesex County), New Jersey. The last Kmart to close in our area was on Aug. 30, 2020, on Best Avenue in Walnutport.

At one time, Kmart and Sears were among the top dogs in the retail world, but then, as dwindling sales and profitability impacted both companies, they decided to join forces, but that didn’t work either. Sears and Kmart were owned by Sears Holdings, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2018 and almost were liquidated in 2019. Eddie Lampert, the companies’ longtime investor and chief executive officer, kept them in business under the name of Transformco. What Lampert plans to do with the remaining few stores is not known, but it obviously has no discernible future in the world dominated by Walmart, Target and Amazon.

The two companies have closed more than 3,500 stores and cut a quarter-million jobs since 2005. At its peak in 1994, Kmart operated 2,486 stores globally, including 2,323 discount stores and Super Kmart Center locations in the United States.

Most business analysts believe the company’s issues began in the early-1960s when it failed to keep pace with upstart competitors Walmart and Target. It failed to identify the demographic it was targeting, while the other two did, making for more efficiently run operations. In addition, it failed to update its technology, causing it to fall further behind its growing and aggressive competitors.

Few realize that Kmart was the evolved giant retailing empire that emerged from the Kresge five-and-dime stores of a much earlier era. In fact the “K” of “Kmart” stands for “Kresge” - Sebastian Spering Kresge, who was born in northeastern Pennsylvania, and who spent his younger years in the West End of Monroe County before opening a small five-and-dime store in downtown Detroit.

Little did he realize when he turned the key on that operation in 1899 that he and a few other visionaries were revolutionizing the retailing marketplace forever. Everything in Kresge’s store sold for a nickel or a dime, the same type of concept borrowed by today’s dollar stores.

The Kresge stores were rebranded “Kmart” in 1977.

Kresge was born in Bald Mount, Newton Township, Lackawanna County. Until he was 21, he lived with his parents on the family farm near Kresgeville (which is named for his ancestors). He went to the Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York, after graduating in 1889 from the Fairview Academy in Brodheadsville, Monroe County.

A few years later, after he had been on the road as a traveling salesman for five years, he began working in 1897 for James G. McCrory, founder of another 5 and 10 cents store for two years before partnering with Charles J. Wilson. The two men, with Kresge’s $8,000 investment that he saved up, opened the first S.S. Kresge store, and, as we say, the rest is history. Among a handful of his early jobs was one as a teacher at Gower’s School in Kunkletown, Monroe County, where he earned $22 a month.

Kresge was described as being frugal but extremely generous. To commemorate the anniversary of his company in 1924, he set up the Kresge Foundation with $1.3 million. Before he died in East Stroudsburg in 1966 at the age of 99, Kresge donated $175 million to his foundation. To date, the foundation has distributed more than $1.5 billion to qualifying charities.

A strict Methodist, Kresge was a prohibitionist opposed to alcohol, tobacco and gambling.

Among his peers and business associates, he was relentless in his pursuit of success. “I didn’t work only eight hours a day, but sometimes 18 hours,” Kresge once said. “When one starts at the bottom and learns to scrape, then everything becomes easy.”

Indicative of Kresge’s frugality and practicality, in 1953 when Kresge Hall was dedicated at Harvard University, his speech consisted of just six words, “I never made a dime talking.”

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.