In September 1955, 88-year-old five-and-dime king Sebastian S. Kresge visited his newly renovated Wilkes-Barre store for its grand reopening, meeting the staff and posing for photos.
He had ‚??taken a special and lively interest in the construction of the local store,‚?Ě according to The Times Leader. That ‚??interest‚?Ě could well have been something more than public relations, for Kresge‚??s 1955 visit was a homecoming of sorts.
Born just a few miles from Wilkes-Barre in 1867, Kresge by mid-20th century was a titan of the discount store industry that had swept America and revolutionized retail buying since the late 1800s.
While the once-ubiquitous S.S. Kresge stores (the form of the name on their signs) are long gone, Kresge‚??s legacy lives on in the modern Kmart chain, created out of the Kresge company 50 years ago. Kmart itself is celebrating a local milestone this week with the reopening of the Edwardsville store along U.S. Route 11, badly damaged in the Tropical Storm Lee flooding of September 2011.
Sebastian Spering Kresge was born at Bald Mountain, Luzerne County (now Lackawanna County) in 1867. Not wanting to follow his family in farming, he attended the Fairview Academy and the Polytechnic Institute, becoming a teacher but earning so little money that a job change to a Scranton grocery store increased his income substantially.
By age 21 he had graduated from the Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He then became a salesman for the Bertels tin ware company of Wilkes-Barre.
Impressed by the success of the growing Woolworth chain of retail stores, he decided to use the $8,000 he had saved and enter that business.
In the Midwest he first partnered with John G. McCrory, who was starting what would become a major chain of stores. Then in 1897 Kresge went to Detroit and opened the first store under his own name, bearing the slogan ‚??Nothing over 10 cents.‚?Ě
The business succeeded magnificently and spread across the United States. By 1912 Kresge had 85 stores bearing his name ‚?? including one in downtown Wilkes-Barre, near his birthplace.
What accounted for that success?
In 1957 Kresge‚??s son, Stanley Kresge, gave a speech in which he quoted his father as having said of his career: ‚??I had the right idea at the right time and in the right place.‚?Ě
That idea was a big Main Street type of store full of low-price everyday items placed so the customers could see and examine them and pretty much serve themselves.
With standardized goods, no delivery and the employment of young women as clerks, overhead was held down.
Kresge wasn‚??t alone in his vision of what America needed. By 1912, when his stores incorporated, there were growing national chains under the name of McCrory (his old partner), Woolworth, Kirby, Kress, Newberry, McClellan, Murphy and many more, though Kresge had one of the largest. The merger of Woolworth and Kirby at that time created the heavyweight of the pack, a 300-store mega-chain.
Said Stanley Kresge in his speech, what these men had in common was ‚??the abilities to recognize that the time was ripe for the fulfillment of their ambitions.‚?Ě
Others have noticed the meeting of the right idea with the right times.
‚??This is a phenomenon created by the larger economy,‚?Ě said Anthony Liuzzo, professor of business at Wilkes University.
Liuzzo pointed out the need for more and cheaper goods in the turbulent and sometimes depressed economy of the post-Civil War era. ‚??There was an explosion of retail shopping in the late 19th century.‚?Ě
The Kresge chain, with its distinctive red signs bearing the name ‚??S.S. Kresge,‚?Ě continued to grow.
Locally, a Pittston store was established. In Wilkes-Barre, Kresge‚??s occupied an odd Y-shaped structure with one front on Public Square and another just around the corner on South Main Street, divided in two by a triangular curved-front building.
In that burgeoning downtown of the early 20th century, Kresge‚??s immediate neighbors included ‚??five and dime‚?Ě competitors Kirby‚??s, McCrory‚??s (Kresge‚??s old partner) and Neisner‚??s, as well as the more traditional Boston Store.
‚??It was an industry full of copycats,‚?Ě said Liuzzo. ‚??You had to be first and aggressive.‚?Ě
A typical Kresge store of the 20th century was large enough to accommodate housewares, clothing, toiletries, school supplies and hardware items, mostly on open counters, with sales clerks strategically placed.
Like other variety stores, they tended to be just one or two floors, differing from the multi-story department stores of that era. The customer could get in and out fast.
Children were drawn to the Kresge stores by the big toy departments, and the weary shopper could relax at a lunch counter or in a full-scale restaurant, often with table service.
Shopping was made as pleasant as possible. The local Kresge‚??s was among the first area stores to install air conditioning.
But the emphasis was on low prices. It was not until 1917 ‚?? 20 years after their founding ‚?? that the Kresge stores had to go beyond the five-and-dime model and raise some prices to 15 cents. A few years later the top price became 25 cents, and for a time Kresge operated a separate chain of stores with some items costing an astonishing $1.
In the post-World War II era Kresge began modernizing its stores. The Wilkes-Barre store was gutted and completely rehabbed in 1955, attracting Sebastian S. Kresge for the reopening.
Employees were treated well, with paid vacations of up to one month coming in early as a benefit, along with annual bonuses.
A pension plan appeared in 1941, and in 1960 the company started an employee stock purchase plan.
Growth and change continued into the later 20th century. As shopping centers and malls drew people away from the old downtowns, the Kresge company moved to meet the challenge.
While some other chains kept to the ‚??main street‚?Ě store concept or sold out to rivals, Kresge in 1962 began developing the Kmart mega-stores in shopping centers, offering a greater variety of goods, including furniture and electronics.
Despite the demands of business, Kresge never forgot the society that helped to make success possible. In 1924 he allocated $1.6 million to start The Kresge Foundation, which put up money ‚?? often through a challenge grant or other innovative means ‚?? to help communities through what it calls ‚??strategic philanthropy.‚?Ě That could include anything from promoting the fine arts to aiding hospital expansion to helping conservation projects. In 2010 it put $158 million into grants. Kresge headed the foundation early on, and then became treasurer.
In 1966, not long after that transition to Kmart, the 99-year-old Sebastian S. Kresge died at his home of many years at Mountainhome in Monroe County.
His legacy continued. In Wyoming Valley, Kmarts appeared in the 1970s, with the last of the old Kresge stores (long past their five-and-dime stage) finally closing their doors in the early 1980s.
Competitors that had not already vanished soon followed. The era of the downtown discount-priced variety store had ended, but the ‚??K‚?Ě from Kresge‚??s lived on.
The development of national chain variety stores in the late 19th and early 20th century owed much to eastern Pennsylvania.
The F.M. Kirby chain, which eventually merged with the F.W. Woolworth chain, began in Wilkes-Barre when Fred Morgan Kirby arrived from upstate New York and opened a store on East Market Street.
Woolworth‚??s brother, Charles S. Woolworth, opened his first store in Scranton.
Sebastian S. Kresge, founder of the Kresge store chain, was born at Bald Mountain, Luzerne County (now Lackawanna County) in 1867. He opened his first stores in the Midwest, but eventually opened several in Wyoming Valley.
His company is now represented by the Kmart chain. John G. McCrory, founder of the nationwide McCrory chain, was born in York, Pa. He opened his first stores in western Pennsylvania and eventually owned several in Wyoming Valley. Early in his career he partnered with Sebastian S. Kresge.
Samuel H. Kress opened his first store in Nanticoke. The chain eventually spread all over the East.
J.J. Newberry, from Stroudsburg, opened his first stores in eastern Pennsylvania. Early in his career he worked for Samuel H. Kress and in the Boston Store, of Wilkes-Barre.