For some of us of a certain age and with a good memory, that “Calvin and Hobbes” strip — in which Calvin’s dad tells him he came not only from a store, but from Kmart, where he was a Blue Light Special — is particularly funny. Because some of us grew up at least within earshot of the Blue Light Special.
For a kid growing up south of Muncie, the center of my shopping universe was the Southway Plaza, where I bought comics and had my first — and only — shoplifting experience (a story for another time).
But right up there with the Southway — figuratively and geographically — was the nearby Kmart.
Considering the sad state of Kmart today — struggling financially and spurned by even discriminating Walmart shoppers — it’s hard to imagine that Kmart was once the retail powerhouse that it was.
But my whole family shopped there. My toys came from there, I bought records there — vinyl LPs — and a lot of our clothes came from there.
And if you went to Kmart often enough, you were familiar with the Blue Light Special.
At random times during the day, the management decided it was time to push some slow-moving product. An employee was assigned the task of rolling out the Blue Light Special, which was a metal cart with a pricing gun and a metal pole with, literally, a blue light at the top. The lights were not unlike those at the top of a police car.
Some store employee would get on the P.A. system and announce, for example, a Blue Light Special on baseballs in the sporting goods department. A special price on baseballs would be available for the next 15 minutes, they would note. Customers who wanted to buy baseballs — or ham sandwiches from the deli, or sneakers from the shoe department — would make their way there and fill their carts.
I don’t remember my family often buying Blue Light Specials and to this day it seems like a curious marketing strategy. While the promise of a Blue Light Special might draw shoppers to Kmart, there was little to attract them but the hope that sometime while they were there a random item might go on sale. It was kind of like an internal Kmart lottery.
Apparently the Blue Light Specials, introduced in 1965 — during my early Kmart shopping experience — held on until 1991. A couple of years ago, the retailer tried to appeal to Baby Boomer memories by referencing Blue Light Specials and adopting a blue lightbulb mascot. But it was a little like when KFC made Colonel Sanders a hip-hop granddad; it’s hard to imagine who they thought they were appealing to.