pc-032317-bz-sears (copy) (copy)

Kmart opened a store at 8517 Rivers Ave. (above) in North Charleston in 1994. It closed in March 2017 and is now a call center for the wireless phone carrier T-Mobile. File/Staff

Kmart and its "Blue Light Special" sales gimmick, throwbacks to a bygone shopping era, are about to fade to black in South Carolina.

They'll vanish for good from the Palmetto State's retail landscape in fairly short order, most likely before the upcoming holiday season wraps up.

The ailing retailer's corporate parent said in a statement last week that after a "careful review, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to close the Kmart stores in Greenville, Lexington and West Columbia, South Carolina."

They're the last three left in the state.  

"The liquidation sales are expected to begin in mid-September and the stores are planned to close by mid-December," public relations director Larry Costello said Thursday. "We encourage customers to continue shopping on Kmart.com for all their product needs."

This latest pullback is not unexpected. Kmart, which is part of the same group that owns Sears, another fallen retail icon, has been shrinking its footprint for years while steadily ceding ground to bigger and healthier competitors such as Walmart, Target, Costco and Amazon. Its last store in the Charleston region went dark in 2017. 

Deep in debt, the Sears-Kmart ownership group led by hedge fund investor Eddie Lampert since 2005 filed for bankruptcy protection in October. Lampert ended up re-acquiring what remained of the business at a court auction under the name Transformco.

In all, the new parent is expected to shed about 100 more stores by the end of 2019, including the three in South Carolina, on top of 26 closings announced last month, according to numerous reports. The cuts will reduce the once-mighty and expansive Sears and Kmart retail empire to about 300 stores, down from a peak of about 3,500.

It's been a painful skid for Kmart, once a pioneering, high-growth discounter that identified South Carolina as one of its early expansion markets.

Kmart Closing (copy) (copy)

The last Kmart in the Charleston area was on Ladson Road in Summerville. It closed about two years ago. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.

The predecessor to the 57-year-old chain was S.S. Kresge Co. It introduced the Kmart concept March 1, 1962, outside Detroit. It went on to add another 18 stores before the year ended, including one in Greenville.

Kmart made its way from the Upstate to the Columbia market on Fort Jackson Boulevard in 1963. It then fanned out to Florence and, later, the Charleston area, where it rolled out three suburban big-box locations by 1973.

It was a stable yet seminal period for the retail industry, the literal calm before the storm. Sam Walton, who started Walmart the same year Kmart made its debut, was gearing up to blow past just about every other rival in his path. Jeff Bezos would not create Amazon.com until 1994.

Kmart battled back, with little success. For instance, under of a chainwide remodeling campaign in the early 1990s the company spent $3 million to upgrade a store on Savannah Highway. The improvements included a pizzeria, wider aisles, more checkout lines and a door greeter. It was viewed largely as a response to the aggressive approach undertaken at Walmart, by then the nation's biggest retailer. A Charleston stockbroker who had been following the two rival discounters was asked in 1992 whether the plan would work. 

"It appears to me that Kmart has patterned its new ... strategy along the same lines that has been so successful for Walmart," she told The Post and Courier. "Only time will tell who will be the most successful."

Clearly, that time has come and gone. 

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott