Blue-Light Still Flickers

Jan 27, 2005

By George Anderson

Kmart’s blue-light special was the brainchild of a store manager in 1965 who was looking for a way to move clearance merchandise.

Forty years later, the blue-light has become a symbol for many of Kmart’s problems. It’s also been a great source of material for late night comedians. Plenty of people inside and out of Kmart would be happy to see the switch turned to off on the blue-light forever.

Others, however, say it is one of the few things aside from “for sale “signs on real estate that has helped Kmart move anything since the company emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants (and RetailWire BrainTrust panelist), is among those who say it’s time Kmart put away its blue-light for good. He told the Detroit News, “Customers are more sophisticated, they expect more and they want something different — not the same thing that was done years ago. The blue-light should be left alone to die.”

Jack Trout, president of brand consultants Trout & Partners, shares Mr. Whalin’s opinion. “It’s an idea whose time has come and gone. Wal-Mart’s ‘Everyday prices’ trump blue-light specials. Why they want to try this one again, I have no idea. What Kmart is saying is that we have a few things on sale and Wal-Mart is saying we have a lot of things on sale.”

Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys Inc., says Kmart shouldn’t be in any hurry to get rid of its blue-light. “The fact is that this is one of the few successful campaigns that Kmart has managed to leverage in the last few years,” he said. “Kmart hasn’t been able to articulate a clear strategy in the marketplace and this may be able to help them do that.”

Moderator’s Comment: Should Kmart use the blue-light?

We’re about to offer one of those “we can see many sides of the issue” responses that often set us off when we’re looking for a simple yes or no and why

If Robert Passikoff is correct and promotions using the blue-light are one of the few things that has been successful for Kmart, then perhaps it has a place
as a company icon like the smiley face and target of the chain’s discount store competitors.

In politics, President Bush and his first administration came under criticism for its handling of pre-9/11 security by not focusing on the threat of terrorism
because of its “anything but Clinton” attitude, meaning that if the previous government thought it was important, then it immediately went to the bottom of the priority list.

We wonder, under obviously much less grave circumstances — has Kmart’s marketing and merchandising team taken an “anything but Conaway” attitude? Previous
chairman and chief executive, Chuck Conaway, relaunched the blue-light as part of his failed strategy to turn the retailer around.

As for doing away with the blue-light, we do agree that it is a relic of an inglorious past. That should be enough to kill it. Of course, it probably doesn’t
matter anyway. Once the Kmart/Sears deal is finalized, there probably won’t be anymore Kmarts or need for blue-lights.

George Anderson – Moderator

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