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Shoppers confident despite Kmart's troubles

January 23, 2002

Shoppers confident despite Kmart's troubles



By JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

Ray Gustafson says he prefers to shop at Kmart for the company's sheer longevity, although the discount retailer's 40-year track record is in danger.

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On Tuesday, Kmart became the largest retailer to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it attempts to restructure and emerge from Chapter 11 next year, according to a corporate statement at www.bluelight.com.

For now, the discount chain's 2,114 stores will remain open, but by April company officials will re-evaluate each store and lease with the object of closing unprofitable or underperforming stores, the release states.

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"Kmart has been around since I was a little kid," said Gustafson, 54, of Hagerstown.

While Gustafson prefers the store known for BlueLight specials, his wife, Mary, said the store can be crowded, making it hard to find items. In that regard, Wal-Mart may have an edge, she said.

Competitors such as Wal-Mart and Target have taken a toll on Kmart's business. The discount chain noted factors in the decision to file Chapter 11 included "intense competition in the discount retailing industry."

A Target store opened in the Crosspoint shopping center behind Valley Mall in March 2000.

Wal-Mart, which once had a store on Wesel Boulevard across from the Valley Plaza's Kmart, moved its operation and packed parking lot to the Centre of Hagerstown in June 2000 where it opened a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

That Wal-Mart does so well - it was one of the nation's top Wal-Mart's on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving - that Wal-Mart officials still are looking for a site for a second store in the Hagerstown area.

If Kmart were to close, it would remove a choice for discount retail shoppers in a sector of the economy that has been a local strength, said John Howard, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

The Hagerstown store manager referred media inquiries to the corporate office, which left a voice mail referring the media to the company's Web site at www.bluelight.com.

Shoppers at the Valley Plaza's Kmart appeared confident the local store performs well enough that it will survive the cut this spring.

"I think it does a fair business," said Tony Caudo, 23, of Hagerstown.

"I think they have pretty good sale prices," said his wife, Dawn.

Kmart also has stores in Frederick, Md., Martinsburg, W.Va., Chambersburg, Pa., Waynesboro, Pa., and Shippensburg, Pa.

Kmart's roots date to 1899 when Sebastian S. Kresge founded the S.S. Kresge Co.

In 1962, the company opened the first Kmart discount department store in a suburb of Detroit. Seventeen other Kmart stores opened the same year. The chain's name was changed from S.S. Kresge Co. to Kmart Corp. in 1977 to reflect that in 1976, sales at Kmart stores accounted for 94.5 percent of the company's domestic consolidated sales.

Several shoppers heading into the Kmart along Apple Harvest Drive near Martinsburg, W.Va., Tuesday said they hoped to find deals inside given the trouble Kmart was facing.

"We're vultures," joked Joe Hayden as he headed into the store with his wife and two children.

Hayden, who lives in Charles Town, said he usually shops at the Wal-Mart near Charles Town but decided to go to the Martinsburg Kmart to see if prices were being slashed.

Despite the problems looming for the company, Hayden said he thinks Kmart will survive.

"It's been around too long. It may (close) eventually, but not any time soon," Hayden said.

Martinsburg resident David Hayes said he likes Kmart because it is less crowded than other stores.

"I would hate to see it (close)," Hayes said.

Chambersburg, Pa., resident Kelley Steed's family has shopped faithfully at Kmart for years.

"Kmart is convenient," said Steed, who frequents Kmart mostly for baby items. "I would hate to see it go."

Carol Loveless, 61, of Halfway, also prefers Kmart.

Loveless said Kmart has better clothes, more variety and nice employees.

"I go to Wal-Mart, but I try to do my shopping here," Loveless said.

Chambersburg resident Trish Stinson said she doesn't "shop anywhere but Kmart."

Stinson stopped at the Wayne Avenue store for a new watch after hers died earlier Tuesday. She walked out with the watch, detergent, tissues and Tylenol.

"I go to Kmart for almost everything. I don't have time to mess around," she said.

Bettie Kelly, 72, of Williamsport, was just looking for the best price.

"I hope they keep this (Kmart) open. It has a lot of nice things," she said.

Staff writers Stacey Danzuso and Dave McMillion and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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