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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2002 / 9 Shevat, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

The Blue Light of Happiness -- ATTENTION Kmart schleppers!

If you, like me, can think of no better place to buy Elmo undies, $7 slippers and delectable Little Debbie cakes coated with paper-thin artificial fudge, you will agree: Kmart is an American institution.

It must live to sell another muumuu.

And yet, it seems, the blue-light behemoth is in trouble up to its Nerf balls. Last week, it appointed a new chairman - unfortunately, a bankruptcy expert - in a desperate attempt to save the 2,100-store chain from being squeezed to death by Wal-Mart and Target: Wal-Mart being huge and cheap, Target being chic and cheap, Kmart being sloppy, spotty, understocked, over the hill.

And cheap. Not to mention boasting checkout lines longer than most parades.

Still, there must be something compelling about the place, because I find myself there all the time and so do my friends.

"Anything you might need for your apartment, you find there," says Karen Vernon, 25, a secretary whose digs are decorated in late '90s Kmart.

"It's got real basic things for the kids," adds another pal, Marla. "And it's got great deals, even on food. I once bought an 8-pound can of coffee there, but I wasn't going directly home, so I ended up carrying around this huge can of coffee. ..."

Yeah, yeah. Look, a bargain's a bargain. No complaining. And, frankly, we have Kmart to thank for the very idea of - hallelujah! - giant discount stores.

Kmart began as S.S. Kresge's, the nation's No. 2 dime store. By the 1950s, it was smart enough to realize the days of the five-and-ten were numbered - or at least had only a mere half century to go. So in 1958, Kresge's opened its first discount department store.

As if it wasn't exciting enough to find off-price bras, bibs and barbecues all under the same roof, Kmart went on to give its shoppers the thrill of the Blue Light Special. This was the bright idea of the manager at the Fort Wayne, Ind., Kmart in 1965. Anxious to sell leftover Christmas wrapping, he dragged a flashing police light to the department and gave shoppers only 15 minutes to grab all the outdated paper products they could. Only 15 minutes! Outta my way!

Six months later, the Blue Light Special was part of Kmart karma nationwide.

The famous light's career went on to mirror John Travolta's. After some exciting years in the '70s, it disappeared, only to resurface a few years back - and fizzle anew. Thursday morning at the 34th St. Kmart, for instance, the blue-lit men's jackets attracted only one paying customer.

Same as that star vehicle "Swordfish."

So granted, the stores (and Mr. Travolta) need some kind of boost. It wouldn't hurt if they managed to untangle the slacks in the toddlers' department, which have morphed into one giant bale. And, frankly, being followed around the store by a guy missing his front teeth and insisting, "I am the president of Kmart!" did not add a whole lot of positive energy to my shopping experience.

Still, many of us have never fully recovered from the death of Woolworth's. Sweat breaks out when we find ourselves in need of a sewing kit, slip or ceramic figurine of a farm girl holding a goose. If Kmart goes, our sanity - and budget - could well go with it.

So, please, don't let the blue light go out!

And while we're at it, don't let Mr. Swordfish choose his own scripts, either.

JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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