Business Columns & Blogs

March 10, 2012

End of a Kmart, end of an era

When the Kmart at 4400 Fort Jackson Boulevard opened in 1963, it was one of a kind for Columbia: A large, one-stop-shopping discount store with a lunch counter.

Shoppers could get a sandwich at the café and then head to the music section to pick up the new Beatles album or the toiletries aisle to get a new toothbrush. A “blue light special” might have them scurrying to an aisle to see the surprise discount under the flashing light.

“Times were simpler then,” said John Baker, who owns the shopping center where the store has been for nearly its full 50-year lease. “It was the only store of its type around Columbia for a long time.”

When the store closes in June, it will mark the end of an era for those who have shopped there nearly their entire lives.

“It’s a sad day in Columbia,” said Baker.

Baker was 8 the day the store opened — long before the words “Attention Kmart shoppers” became a national catchphrase. His father signed the original lease with Kmart to open the store. It was only the second Kmart in South Carolina and, Baker thinks, the 43rd lease by the company, which opened in 1962.

A spokeswoman for Kmart said its owner, Sears Holdings, has no historical records for its stores and could not confirm if it is one of the oldest Kmarts still operating in the country.

Baker remembers donning hard hats with his twin brother, Frank, and walking through the construction project with their father as the store was being built. On opening day, a helicopter hovered overhead dropping ping-pong balls marked with special savings to the crowd; customers pressed their faces up against the windows to get a sneak peak inside the store before the doors opened.

The Baker and Baker company went on to build 21 Kmart stores in four states over the next three decades, including most of the stores in South Carolina’s Midlands and Lowcountry. Red Hughes — father of Greenville developer Bob Hughes, who has plans to redevelop the former Mental Health property on Columbia’s Bull Street — had the unofficial franchise for the Upstate and built the state’s first Kmart there, Baker said.

Kmart was more than just a business deal or shopping destination for Baker. He said he worked in the appliance section of the company’s still-open Dentsville store, learning business lessons that would prepare him to join the family company after college.

One day, his department manager, Bill Vest — who “had a laugh you could hear across the store” — sent him to build a display of new coffee-making machines called Mr. Coffee. Each coffee maker cost Kmart $16.95, Baker said, but he was told to mark them for sale for $14 each.

Something didn’t seem right to the young Baker until Vest explained the concept of a “loss leader,” merchandise a store marks down below cost to draw in customers who then, hopefully, will buy other full-cost items.

It changed the way Baker looked at business.

But things began changing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Walmart began introducing its massive discount stores to the nation.

Kmart tried to diversify, Baker said: building smaller 35,000-square-foot stores; trying to take its concept to other products, such as bookstores; and creating the ill-fated American Fare to bring a grocery store under the same roof as Kmart.

But, in the end, the company lost its focus and, perhaps, its enthusiasm, Baker said.

Kmart filed for bankruptcy protection a decade ago and later merged with Sears. It closed a store that had been on Bush River Road for 35 years after its lease expired in 2009. At the end of last year, it announced more than 100 stores nationwide would close. An initial list did not include the Fort Jackson Boulevard store, but the company updated the list a couple of weeks ago to include it.

“The downfall of Kmart started long before the bankruptcy a few years ago,” Baker said. “They ended up not focusing so much on the Kmart chain, and that’s when the Walmarts of the world started to develop.

“It’s sad for the customer base as much as it is for me, the landlord.”

Nonetheless, Baker said it is remarkable to have a store stay in one place for nearly half a century. “There are not too many developers I know who can stake (that) claim,” he said. “I’m eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to work with this tenant.”

Rumors abound about which retailer might replace Kmart. A neighborhood Walmart or a Trader Joe’s grocery store? But Baker said he has not started recruiting new tenants.

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