Kmart down to three stores after closure this week

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When the Kmart store in Avenel, New Jersey, closes permanently this week, there will only be three Kmarts left in the United States.

At one time, Kmart employed more than 300,000 people and had 2,440 stores.

In social media groups with thousands of members, people follow the slow demise of this once powerful retail institution and reminisce about family trips to Kmart and relatives who worked there.

Michael Lisicky has authored several books about legacy department stores and regularly visits the remaining Kmart stores. He is sad about the closing of the retail chain and says it is a piece of Americana.

"Everybody went to Kmart whether you liked it or not. They had everything. You could go there… You had all the appliances, you had the tools. The women’s and the children’s clothes. And the kids, you had toys, sporting goods, you had candy, you had stationary," Lisicky said.

A shopper agreed that it’s sad to see Kmart disappear.

"When I was younger, I did not have any money so that was a good place to shop because the prices were cheap. To see this gone right now, it’s kind of sad," Mike Jerdonek said.

Kmart’s decline has been slow but steady, brought about by years of falling sales, changes in shopping habits, and Walmart’s looming shadow.

Kmart struggled to compete with Walmart’s low prices and Target’s trendier offerings.

The retail chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2002, becoming the largest U.S. retailer to take that step.

A few years later, a hedge fund executive pledged to return Kmart to its former greatness, but the recession and the rising dominance of Amazon helped to derail those goals.

Mark Cohen, Director of Retail Studies at Columbia University Business School, says the retail chain has been mismanaged for decades. He predicts the remaining three stores will close within months.

"Kmart is a victim of serial incompetence with regard to its historical leadership. It has had a variety of folks running the business who were either not paying much to the competition or attempting to do things which frankly resulted in the ultimate train wreck, which is bankruptcy," Cohen said.

Management at the Avenel location would not allow employees to be interviewed on camera. Off-camera, a woman who worked at the store for 30 years said she would retire. Another employee, a department manager, said he had already lined up another retail job.

Even the store’s infrastructure is on sale here: mannequins, cash machines, and exit signs.

The retail chain was an early adopter of layaway programs, which allowed customers who lacked credit to reserve items and pay for them in installments.

Transformco, the company that currently owns Kmart, did not say how long it expects to keep open the three remaining stores: in Westwood, New Jersey; Long Island, New York; and Miami, Florida.