NEW ULM - The New Ulm Kmart closed its doors for the final time Sunday, leaving the community with a sense of loss for a "big box" store they considered more like a local business.
Kmart located in New Ulm in he early 1970s. For many years, it was the only "big box" store in the community. It remained profitable for decades, even with the arrival of Target and Walmart.
News of the closure came on Feb. 23 as part of a larger 15-store closure by Sears Holding, the company that owns the Kmart chain. The closures were part of an effort to raise funds after Sears Holding posted a $2.4 billion net loss in the fourth quarter.
Staff photo by Josh Moniz
Marge Hames protested the closing of the New Ulm Kmart from March 23 until the store’s last day on Sunday.
A closing business sale followed with discounts on merchandise. By Sunday's closing, the majority of the display racks stood empty like tree branches in winter. The store's floor was mostly empty because most of the shelving had been sold.
Several area residents who shopped at Kmart on its final day were interviewed about the situation.
The majority of customers said they felt the local Kmart brought prices and products that couldn't be found elsewhere in the city.
Final-day patrons expressed serious frustration with the closure, particularly because they believed the decision was made independent of the store's profitability.
"I preferred [Kmart] over all the other major stores in town," said Lori Marquardt, "I really don't like that they just closed it."
The most common reasons given for support of Kmart were friendliness and helpfulness of the store's staff. Many gave glowing reviews of their experiences in the store based on time with staff.
The serious sense of loss caused a local 74-year old resident Marge Hames to spend every day since March 23 protesting the closure. She parked across the street and posted signs in support of the store.
Hames didn't expect her efforts to prevent the closure, but she wanted to show how much she supported the employees.
"I've been a customer for 34 years. I've become friends with the people [who worked] there," said Hames.
Some felt Kmart's closure would have an impact on New Ulm, though they admitted the existence of other "big box" stores would minimize the change.
The future of Kmart's lot and the employees is unknown due to limited amount of information that Sear Holdings is willing to release.
Store manager Tom Paluch said that every employee was offered the option to transferring to another Kmart store. He said that most turned it down because they lived in New Ulm and didn't want to uproot their homes. Kmart officials didn't release exact employee numbers, but the press release during the closure announcement estimated that each store had 40 to 80 employees. Paluch said there was 40 employees still working at the store on the final day.
Paluch's own future appears uncertain. He is considering several prospects, but has not made any concrete decisions.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)