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Feature

Light Show

The Flashing Blue Return of a Retail Icon

Michelle Gienow

By Kristine Antonelli | Posted 6/13/2001

It is a running joke in my house: When I get fed up with the writing life and finally take the advice of the voices in my head that tell me, Give it up, you can't even write a coherent grocery list, I could start a new career as the Kmart Blue Light Special girl.

I remember her from the Kmart where my mother and I shopped when I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs. In the mind of a 7-year-old, she was a beautiful and mysterious creature who sold my mother Pond's Cold Cream and no-run stockings. She was an independent career woman.

I could be that girl , I thought back then. And even now, 30-odd years later, on days I can barely manage baby talk much less a complete sentence, I imagine myself as the Blue Light Special girl. I am pushing a cart with a blue flashing light around the store selling Dove soap, Oil of Olay, and Cornsilk face powder for 99 cents. I have stacks of thread-thin dish towels for 50 cents each. My Lee Press-On Nails are painted with sparkly purple quick-dry nail polish (just 75 cents!). I am wearing the red smock over my polyester Jaclyn Smith pantsuit, my blond hair even blonder and bigger. I accessorize my look with thumb and toe rings from the jewelry department.

What a gig! People would love me, and I would never have to face rejection again!

At 6 p.m. on a Friday, the parking lot at the Big Kmart store in Catonsville Plaza on Route 40 is filling up. Young women with tattoos on their arms and embroidered Jordache jeans on their legs tote babies in carriers. Their older children skip ahead, anxious for a ride on the yellow-topped carousel outside the door.

Inside the store, weary mothers who have stopped by after work, their children riding in the cart, search for the perfect $10.99 summer set. There are two little girls hiding under the rack of leopard-print Kathy Ireland dresses their mother is inspecting. The mother takes one off the rack, holds it up to herself, and looks down. No, not this one. She moves on to a purple jungle print with an i am washable tag hanging from the front.

The Catonsville Kmart is at the end of a strip shopping center just a few traffic lights west of the city. Once a Caldor, it co-anchors the shopping center with a Metro Food Market. There's also a Dollar Tree and a Kim's Wigs. In Kmart, the main attraction is toward the back, just before the pet supplies, the camping equipment, and the rack of daisy-painted cushy toilet seats. A bright blue circular canopy is suspended from the ceiling. A blue strobe light hangs from the center. Under the canopy, there is a blue metal cart, its shelves filled with two-packs of Dove soap, Clorox bleach, and family-size boxes of Honey Maid Graham Crackers. Customers maneuver their carts around it on their way to the patio furniture or the lingerie.

"If my breasts fall out this time, I am going to bring it back," a lady tells the sales clerk as she puts a two-pack of Hanes cotton and polyester bras (size 38DD) in her cart.

"Now back to the Kmart radio network, brought to you by Citrucel. Make sure you get enough fiber in your diet so you never have to worry about excess gas. Customers say they like the taste of Citrucel compared to Metamucil . . ."

"Is this the Blue Light Special," I ask the store's operations manager, Kevin Clarke.

Clarke glances at me and and replies that it is. "I could announce it, I guess," he says. He gets on the public-address system: "Attention Kmart shoppers . . ."

The Blue Light spins, lighting up the Formica floor like a disco. Music blares from the speakers hooked up to the ceiling.

"I'm beginning to see the light," the voice on the Kmart radio network croons. "Some people work very hard and still don't get it right . . ."

"Yes," an excited customer says to no one in particular as she steers her cart toward the light. "I have been waiting for them to announce this!" She snatches up two family packs of graham crackers.

"I can get 10 of these for $5, right?" says a woman as she eyes the packs of soap. "Knock yourself out," her companion replies.

As the customers thin out, Clarke notices me standing back, writing on my steno pad. "What, you from Wal-Mart or somethin'?" he asks. When I tell him no, that I'm a writer working on a story about the Blue Light Special, he straightens up and starts talking the Kmart talk.

Clarke has been with Kmart for 13 years and has witnessed two changes of corporate management. There are some "smart people" running the company now, he says. "They have picked up this whole idea, the icon concept," he says. "I mean, not even on Madison Avenue can they give you an icon to associate with your business like the Blue Light."

People love to shop, Clarke adds as he loads soap and bleach into the carts. "They do it every day, and then in their free time--they shop. It's all about what you have."

The flashing blue light that attracted women in hair nets and housedresses had been missing from Kmart stores for a decade, the victim of an early-'90s shakeup at the Troy, Mich.-based company. Buffeted by the growing strength of competitors Wal-Mart and Target, new corporate management set out to revamp Kmart's low-rent image and attract more upscale shoppers; the Blue Light Special didn't fit the new image. Besides, the Blue Light sales had begun to lose money--store managers were getting carried away with the idea and selling things too cheaply.

But Kmart continued to struggle through the '90s, as a series of CEOs and marketing schemes failed to carve out for the chain a new identity on par with Wal-Mart's reputation for super-low prices or Target's image as a purveyor of "cheap chic." The company's profits and stock price stagnated. Finally, Kmart's marketing whizzes turned to the one thing the chain had that its competitors lacked: its past, a storehouse of warm, fuzzy customer memories.

In late 1999, Kmart launched BlueLight.com as a separate e-commerce company. The Web site established itself immediately and was soon getting more monthly traffic than Wal-Mart's and Target's sites, according to a September 2000 Detroit News report. The company began thinking of reviving the venerable icon in-store, and conducted polls to see if consumers remembered the Blue Light Special of old. They did.

"More than half of the people we surveyed remembered Blue Light and associated it with value and excitement," says Kmart spokesperson Julie Fracker.

So in April, the company brought the Blue Light back at its 2,109 stores, with a makeover: out went the tacky cart with the flashing light mounted on a pole; in came a bright blue canopy with discolike lights in the center. Specially chosen merchandise would be sold only under the canopy for 20 to 25 minutes every hour. The old sales technique got a new look and logo--a stick figure with a blue floodlight for a head--and a $25 million advertising campaign.

"Kmart always had the ugly-third-cousin image compared to Wal-Mart, Sears, [J.C.] Penney's, and now Target," says Peter Levine, president of Desgrippes Gobé and Associates, a New York-based marketing and brand-development consultant. "People joked about hearing, 'Attention Kmart shoppers.' But they like it because it brings back memories."

But Maria Gomez, a former Bloomingdale's marketing and public-relations executive, says it will take more than nostalgia to lure today's customers away from Kmart's competitors. "I personally grew up with the Blue Light Specials but wouldn't be caught dead running up the aisles looking for a bargain," she says. "It just brings down the value of the merchandise. Consumers want value and quality, which the Blue Light Specials does not convey."

In its earlier incarnation, the Blue Light Special did acquire a reputation as a dumping ground for clearance items that had been picked over and rejected by discriminating shoppers, or stuff Kmart needed to clear out of its warehouses. The phrase "Attention Kmart shoppers" was ubiquitous--but as shorthand not for "bargain" but for just plain cheap. This time around, the Blue Light focuses on everyday items--everything from plain white envelopes for 39 cents a box to microwaves for $25--and features brand names. (The online Blue Light Specials even include high-end merchandise such as televisions and personal computers.)

There might still be a few bugs in the system. In a New Yorker piece on the revival of the special, writer James Surowiecki noted that the Blue Light item at an East Village Kmart he visited recently was Epsom salts.

It's a thin line Kmart has to walk, invoking consumers' fond memories of the old Blue Light without invoking the negative image it saddled the store with. The company is betting $25 million, and maybe even its very survival, on being able to walk that line. When Earl Bartell invented the Blue Light Special 36 years ago, he just wanted to move some wrapping paper.

Over the phone, Bartell, who left Kmart in 1975 to start a production company that eventually folded (he now works in insurance), sounds like a regular guy--fitting for the creator of a sales ploy that became synonymous with shopping Joe and Jane Q. Public-style. He remembers the day he first tried out the Blue Light Special. Except that it wasn't blue.

It was Christmastime 1965, and Bartell, assistant manager of a Kmart in Fort Wayne, Ind., had bought dozens of rolls of holiday wrapping paper that just wasn't selling. The rolls of red, white, and green paper sprinkled with drawings of sleds, Santas, and Christmas trees were stacked up on racks in an aisle near housewares and the Kcafé--away from the center aisle that was full of holiday trimmings and customers snatching them up. Bartell needed to get customers to the aisle where the paper was. But how?

Some kind of light and announcement would do the trick, he figured. He took a red-light lantern from the camping section, attached it to a wooden pole, and rigged it to a stockroom cart. He decorated the cart with red crepe paper and plugged the light into a 12-volt car battery. And there it was. He pushed the contraption around the store, light flashing, stopping where he wanted to draw the customers.

"People just mobbed me," he says. "They were grabbing four and five rolls."

Bartell sent his idea to corporate headquarters in Troy and kept doing the specials in his store. He didn't hear anything until a few months later, when he got a $25 bonus and a certificate for his hot flash. "Suddenly it was a corporatewide policy to do the sales," he says.

But they became the butt of jokes, and some complaints from customers who thought it inappropriate to be sent to the "girl under the red light" for their laundry detergent, Bartell says. He tried an amber light, but that didn't seem to attract enough attention. Finally, after trying a couple of other colors, he settled on blue, and it stuck. To keep customers guessing, he moved the sale around the store. In the morning, he might put pool supplies on the Blue Light, then switch to cameras or film. By the end of the day, the flashing cart would have made a trip around the store with customers following.

"I saw people leaving the store and then when they heard the Blue Light announcement they would run back in," Bartell says. "They would call their friends and tell them that certain items had just gone on the Blue Light."

Bartell says he was amazed when a Kmart executive tracked him down at his insurance agency in Ohio and told him they were bringing the Blue Light back. "They told me they didn't know if I was alive or dead, but that they wanted to let me know that they were using my idea again."

The company rewarded Bartell with 500 shares of stock and a trip to New York for the grand Blue Light relaunch. He also got to meet Jaclyn Smith and Kathy Ireland, whose names adorn lines of Kmart clothing. "They were real nice, and beautiful too," he says. "They have not aged at all. They were just like regular people."

As far as I'm concerned, though, Kmart can have Jaclyn and Kathy. The Kmart girl of my dreams--the Blue Light Special girl--seems to have disappeared. Maybe my nostalgia for the Blue Light isn't the same as everyone else's; at least, the folks up in Troy better hope so, if their big investment is going to pay off. To me, the new blue just isn't the same.

Though, like so many, I drifted away from Kmart and its cut-rate image over the years, I have returned lately. Not as a regular, maybe, but sometimes I just can't find a better price on Sesame Street outfits and short sets or Winnie the Pooh sandals for my 3-year-old son.

But when the Blue Light Special came back I kept looking for her, kept expecting to see her come around a corner and pose confidently by the cart, passing out free samples of complexion-enhancing soap or lotion. Instead, I had to settle for disco lights and graham crackers. Maybe she never existed; maybe I had her confused with the Avon Lady.

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