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The passing of a discount store era

Kmart opened its Sterling location with a bang in July 1973. Forty years and 6 months later, the store will close Sunday. Farewell.

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

The final weekend for Sterling’s Kmart store has arrived. After Sunday, the store, at 2901 E. Lincolnway, will close its doors for the last time.

Much of Kmart’s merchandise has already been carted off by people eager to cash in on closing-sale bargains. The store’s east half is largely empty now. Remaining items occupy shelves and racks on the west half, where shoppers wander aisles of picked-over clothing, toys and seasonal goods.

The scene is a stark contrast to Kmart’s first days in the Sauk Valley.

Kmart opened with a big ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 12, 1973, attended by E.E. Wardlow, president of S.S. Kresge Co., Kmart’s parent, and Sterling Mayor James Ellmaker.

The discount department store was built during a period of rapid expansion for Kmart, whose first store opened in 1962. The Daily Gazette reported that Sterling’s store was the 39th Kmart in Illinois, and the 707th overall in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia. The company planned to open 70 additional stores in 1973, and more than 100 in 1974.

Store manager George W. Gryson Jr. presided over an 84,000-square-foot retailing dynamo that employed 150 people full time, all meticulously trained to end every customer transaction with the parting words, “Thank you for shopping at Kmart.”

The store boasted an automotive center, self-service snack bar, and full-line sporting goods department. Other areas featured domestics, linens, plastics, patio, rugs, clothing for men, women and children, glasswear, furniture, households, hardware, electronics, drugs and stationery.

It all revolved around a philosophy outlined by Harry B. Cunningham, Kresge chairman, a decade earlier.

“Discounting wouldsucceed if someone did it with top quality goods, real discount prices, and took the risk out of it for the shopper with a ‘satisfaction always’ policy.”

Local shoppers flocked to the grand opening sale that weekend. Kmart ran two full pages of advertising in the Gazette on July 13. Among the offerings were a manual portable typewriter for $29.96, a Super 8 movie camera for $49.88, a four-pack of flash cubes for 78 cents, a Whirlpool automatic washer for $208, a child car seat for $12.96, paper towels for 24 cents a roll, a bathroom scale for $2.37, and a 20-gallon garbage can for $1.68.

Other news from July 13, 1973: President Richard Nixon was hospitalized for treatment of viral pneumonia. Watergate was just a misguided “adventure,” a White House aide testified before the Senate Watergate committee. Joe Conley, Gazette wire editor, wrote about the upcoming designation of Community General Hospital as a trauma center. A story reported that Dixon State School still had 219 summer jobs available, at 26 hours a week, for area young people.

The Sterling Theater was showing “High Plains Drifter” starring Clint Eastwood. At The State, Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds starred in “Deliverance.”

How times have changed – in Sterling and for Kmart.

A businessman named Sam Walton of Bentonville, Ark., decided to try Harry Cunningham’s approach to discount retailing, but Walton focused on smaller communities that didn’t merit a Kmart.

Over the years, as Walmart grew into the retailing giant it is today, and as Target and other retail chains rose to prominence, Kmart’s fortunes tumbled, and it began closing stores.

Thus, last autumn’s announcement that Sterling’s Kmart would shut its doors, while unfortunate, was no surprise. Kmart said its 58 Sterling employees would be given a chance to apply at other company stores.

During 40 years and 6 months in Sterling, Kmart had quite a run. It sold a lot of merchandise, rang up a lot of sales tax for the city, and provided a lot of jobs.

But the Blue Light specials are no more in Sterling.

Come Sunday, an era of discount merchandising will end.

Farewell, Kmart.

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