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Requiem for a Blue Light

While the newspapers fixate on Enron, the bankruptcy of Kmart says something larger about the culture.

11:01 PM, Jan 24, 2002 • By DAVID BROOKS
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IT'S A bankruptcy of mammoth proportions. Thousands of people could see their life savings wiped out, hundreds of thousands will feel the pain, and tens of millions will have their lives seriously affected.

Of course I'm talking about Kmart's decision to file Chapter 11. The odd thing is that while this story has been languishing in the business sections, the collapse of Enron, with far fewer ramifications, has been topping headlines for weeks now. There hasn't been much new Enron news of late so the newspapers have just been recycling the old stories at longer and longer lengths.

I agree Enron is interesting. It's really a story of the corrupting influence of gonzo management consultants such as Tom Peters and Gary Hamel. These high-energy speakers were getting paid big bucks to scream "Think Revolution, Not Evolution!" and to tout cosmic capitalism, where everybody thought outside the box, or on the edge, or on the edge of the outside of the box. These faux radicals got their works praised in Fast Company magazine and were touted as the wave of the future by certain libertarian enthusiasts. But when the poor saps at Enron took their advice and launched into a half dozen new businesses with both feet, they ended up destroying the company.

But I suspect the main reason Enron is getting so much media attention is that it's seen as a story about the greed amongst Texas businessmen. Journalists, who are coastal geeks, relish the demise of conservative Texas businessmen.

The Kmart story gets short shrift because . . . well, because it's about Kmart. National reporters tend not to shop at Kmart (though if Crate & Barrel ever went under, big national papers would run with black borders for weeks). The bankruptcy of Kmart is seen as a business story, but not a cultural story--not something to be debated and discussed.

That's too bad, because Kmart is about the rise and triumph of theming. Stores can't just sell things any more, they have to have a theme. This is not news at the upper end, but it is relatively novel among discount stores. Kmart's rivals have themes, or personalities.

Wal-Mart doesn't just have low prices. The brand relentlessly cultivates a small-town image. It's a company that comes in and arguably destroys small-city downtowns, but it is so successful at branding itself as an emblem of rural Red America that people don't regard it as a corporate behemoth. Its headquarters is in rural America. Every store reaches out to local volunteer fire departments and such. Its advertisements are deliberately hokey, featuring "just us folks" sales staff.

Target, of course, is the peppy, high-sensibility store--the place where the cast of "Friends" would shop if they really didn't have any money. Target has an ironic corporate mascot, that ugly red dog with the red target around his eye. It has high-sensibility appliances. I was in a Target yesterday buying a coffee machine and I had to wade through some Michael Graves-designed models--which I really wanted at first--until I realized the plain old $19.95 Mr. Coffee 12-cup maker was right for me. People who shop at Target love calling it Tar-jay, with a French accent. They're upscale-sensibility people with downscale budgets.

Kmart, by contrast, exudes nothing. I spent a few hours in a Kmart near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last week (doing some reporting for a book, not stalking) and I couldn't really describe the personality of the store to you. Even with the few stray Martha Stewart items, it had none. Woolworth was like that too, and look what happened to Woolworth.

What is now Kmart was founded by Sebastian Kresge in 1899. After nearly 70 years as a department store chain, the first discount department store under the Kmart name was opened in Michigan in 1962. Three years later Kmart had 162 stores and a decade after that there were over 1,200 stores. The company grew in size but never grew in sensibility. The management did what the numbers indicated they should do--they began opening megastores with grocery stores attached--but they never hired enough liberal arts majors.

If they had, the liberal arts majors would have told them that they wanted to work at a store with a cool image. People want to shop at a store that has a cool image. Shoppers aren't looking only for good prices. They want recognition, respect, and status--even if they're buying discount.

Attention Kmart turnaround artists: Shoppers want to be themed.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.