The retailer is in the shadow of giants Target and Wal-Mart, but fans say it still has its charms.
Martha Stewart has left the house. The blue light has dimmed. An unflattering nickname (Kame-apart) won't go away.
Twin Cities residents who don't live near a Kmart might have assumed that all the stores have closed, leaving Target and Wal-Mart to duke it out.
Yet, the discounter still has 10 area locations open for business and 1,300 nationwide. The Richfield and Minnetonka stores closed in 2009, but Kmart's chief marketing officer, Mark Snyder, said there are no plans to close any of the remaining Twin Cities locations.
Kmart's customers remain loyal, but they aren't numerous. A survey of 1,000 people by America's Research Group found that only 5.5 percent said they had shopped at a Kmart in the last 30 days. Target came in at 25 percent and Wal-Mart 69 percent.
Given the fact that a major discounter seems to be hiding in plain sight in the Twin Cities, it raises the question: What keeps its shoppers coming back?
Ever feel annoyed walking into Target or Wal-Mart because you had to park so far away? Not at Kmart. Fewer customers makes for more relaxed shopping.
Bette Fernstrom of Anoka loves the Kmart near her home because she rarely has to wait in a checkout line and the customer service is good. "There's always someone to help," she said, "but maybe it's because there are only a few customers in the store."
Kmart's year-round layaway program fits well with the rare person in the new economy who wants to pay cash or make interest-free payments.
Nate Marshbanks of Minneapolis said that's just what gets him in the door. "I put a lawn mower and an armoire on it," he said while shopping at a Kmart in St. Paul on Maryland Avenue.
Sears and sports
Facebook fans reported that they like Kmart's selection of camping equipment, Craftsman tools from Sears (Kmart and Sears merged in 2005), inexpensive jewelry and Twins sports memorabilia.
The selection of Minnesota Twins items is rarely picked over and sometimes it's discounted, said Michael Samuelson of St. Paul. "I've even found White Sox stuff at the Lake Street store," he said.
Mouachee Lor, 20, shops at Kmart mostly because it's close to his St. Paul home but also because it has a larger selection of fishing gear than Target. But he is nagged by concerns about quality. "I call it Kame-apart," he said, resurrecting a nickname that has dogged the discounter for more than 40 years.
Asked about the nickname, Snyder, of Kmart, said: "Quality is improving, but it's a long process to change the image."
Pile on the points
Unlike Target and Wal-Mart, Kmart offers a loyalty card that gives customers points for purchases at Kmart, Sears and Lands' End. Users get $1 in store credit for every $100 spent. No receipts are required for returns purchased using the loyalty card. (Target has a Visa card that gives users a 5 percent discount on store purchases).
Kmart's return policy is comparable to other discounters -- 90 days for most items with a receipt. Its policy on defective items is also similar to most discounters' -- vague. They will be handled on a case-by-case basis if you have a receipt and it's within 90 days of purchase.
Kmart goes after an edgier, glitzier style favored by ethnic customers. In September, watch for a new line from "Modern Family" actress Sofia Vergara.
Kmart's successful pursuit of the ethnic consumer is one reason it's holding on, said retail analyst Britt Beemer of America's Research Group. "In urban areas, Kmart is going after black and Hispanic customers," he said. "Neither Target nor Wal-Mart is actively going after the ethnic consumer." Many of its customers like Kmart's flashier approach to fashion compared with other discounters.
For those who haven't shopped at a Kmart for 10 or 20 years or more, here's a recap. After a 20-year association, Martha Stewart and Kmart parted ways in 2010. None of Martha's towels, shower curtains or cookware remains, even on clearance. It's been replaced by a collection called Country Living, an association with the magazine of the same name.
Judging by its 512,000 fans on Facebook, Kmart still has a base. And it seems to be trying to shed an image of decay. Its fan wall describes Kmart as lovable, frugal, genuine and "not your grandmother's Kmart anymore."
The iconic Blue Light Specials went away in the early 1990s and have been replaced by blue balloons that highlight specials for a short period. The problem is that most customers probably don't associate the balloons with special pricing.
Kmart scrapping the Blue Light Special would be like Target getting rid of the bull's-eye. Bring back the icon, Kmart, and maybe some of your customers will come back just to hear, "Attention, Kmart shoppers, the blue light is now flashing in Domestics, where we're featuring. ... "