June 18, 2011

Special Report: American Fare or American Failure, a history of the hypermart

American Fare 1989, Stone Mountain, GA
Some of you are thinking what's American Fare? Isn't it one of Kmart's house brands? The answer is yes and no. Flashback to two decades ago and you'll discover that Kmart opened a few stores under that name. It wasn't until later on that they adopted it for use as one of their house brand names.

Before Super Kmart Centers there was American Fare. It was a concept that Kmart created in the late 1980's to be their American version of a hypermarket, a retail concept started in France by Carrefour. Kmart's American Fare hypermart was very similar to competitor Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Hypermart USA, and both were started around the same time. Carrefour opened two of their hypermarts in the US also around the same time. All three companies hypermarts didn't make it past the mid-90's.

A hypermart is a fusion of a department store and a grocery store along with other extra services. They range in size from a little over 100,000 sq ft to 250,000 sq ft. Today's closest equivalent to hypermarts are supercenters, although most are a bit smaller than the larger hypermarts of the time.

American Fare was a joint venture of Kmart and Bruno's Supermarkets, Bruno's supplied the grocery side and Kmart stocked everything else. Kmart owned 51% of each store and Bruno's 49%. The idea was to offer very low prices thus lower margins and to make up for it with extremely high volume locations. These store were more upscale in looks than current day Super Kmart Centers.

The first location was opened on January 29, 1989 in Stone Mountain, GA. The second opened on April 1, 1990 in Charlotte, NC and a third location followed in August in Jackson, MS. These were the only locations that ended up opening and the concept was discontinued completely in 1994, but more on that later.

Upon it's debut in 1989, the first American Fare in Stone Mountain, GA was a sight to behold. Coming in at 244,000 sq feet, this monster mecca of shopping was a first for Kmart. According to an article, this store had an upscale flair with several fixtures and displays that were retail firsts at the time. American Fare was able to convince companies to carry brands not normally found in other discount stores. Some of them included Calvin Klein, Jones New York, Puma, Bill Blass, Beverly Hills Polo Club, Hush Puppies, among other well known brands. Although this store was huge, the assortment topped out at just 45,000 sku's. American Fare practiced a merchandising strategy they called selective dominance. They would carry a limited selection in certain categories but keep a large amount of each item on display.

American Fare present day, Stone Mountain, GA (Courtesy of Bing Maps)
At 244,00 sq ft, American Fare would make most Walmart Supercenters jealous. The store was divided up with 105,000 sq ft being devoted to hardlines, 75,000 sq ft to food, 35,000 sq ft for apparel, and the remainder to the mall section of the store. The mall part included 12 specialty shops including: a music and video store, a full-service bank, a hair salon, a pharmacy and a greeting card store (both operated by American Fare), plus a food court. The food court featured a Taco Bell and a TCBY. The store also had the "largest retail scratch bakery in the US." This store had a whopping 81 registers including 61 "custom designed" front end checkouts and 20 others in service departments around the store. It also had 1,800 parking spaces and 2,500 shopping carts for customer use.

Fast forward a year later to April 1, 1990 and American Fare made its second store debut in Charlotte, NC. With the opening of this store it marked the redesign of American Fare, a better selection in a less intimidating store. And less intimidating it was, at only 164,000 sq ft it was considerably smaller than the Stone Mountain store. This location came stocked with 110,000 sku's, over double what the Stone Mountain location had. The Stone Mountain store was re-merchandised to match the offerings at the Charlotte location after its opening.

American Fare present day, Charlotte, NC (Mike K. photo)
To make up for the smaller size of the store the aisle length was cut down and several of the "mall" shops were eliminated or absorbed into other parts of the store. The fixtures in the apparel department were wheeled closer together removing some of the spacious feeling the Stone Mountain store had. The Charlotte location also cut down the number of checkouts to 43 with 32 on the front end. Some departments like the florist shop and greenhouse were not added to the Charlotte store. The store did feature a photography studio, as well as a Little Caesars Gourmet Pizza and Little Caesars International Submarines shop.

Following the Charlotte store, a third location was opened in Jackson, MS on August 23, 1990.It was 147,000 sq ft and was nearly the same in looks and merchandising as the Charlotte store. A fourth location was briefly planned for Birmingham, AL, but never came to light.

After the opening of the Jackson, MS store, Kmart announced it was not planning anymore American Fare locations. It would instead open Super Kmart Centers, another new concept that was based off of the American Fare stores. The first of which opened in July 1991. In June 1992, just three and a half years after the first American Fare debuted, Bruno's Supermarkets ended its partnership with Kmart. That left Kmart to take full ownerships of the three stores and the responsibility of running the grocery sections. Unfortunately that spelled the beginning of the end for American Fare. In November 1992, the Jackson and Charlotte locations were converted into Super Kmart Centers. In 1994 the Stone Mountain locations grocery section was removed and the store was subdivided. A Cub Foods opened in the newly subdivided grocery area and the rest of the store was remodeled and converted into a regular Kmart location in May of that year.

By May 1994, American Fare was gone completely. It wasn't Kmart's fault, the hypermart concept as a whole failed and was extremely short lived. By the mid-1990's all hypermarts were gone from the US and the supercenter concept was expanding in its place. Following this, Super Kmart Centers began their brief dominance.

Fast forward to 2011 to take a look at the current state of the former American Fare locations. The Stone Mountain, GA location was refurbished into the Dekalb County Schools Administrative and Industrial Complex a few years ago. The parking lot is used for the county school buses to park and practice driving on a small course in the lot. The Jackson, MS location survived as a Super Kmart Center until 2003 when the bankruptcy closings hit. It was torn down in 2007 and replaced with a Carmax used car superstore. The Charlotte, NC location was a Super Kmart Center and then briefly a Steve & Barry's. Today it's vacant and still retains the original American Fare building style.

What are your thoughts on American Fare? Do you think it was a good idea or a bad choice from the start? Share your comments below and let us know.

Special thanks to Mike K. for recently capturing these photo's of the former Charlotte, NC location. He also made a short video of it on Youtube.

American Fare Charlotte, parking lot looking toward entrance (Mike K. photo)

American Fare Charlotte, front of building (Mike K. photo)

American Fare Charlotte, Former Auto Center (Mike K. photo)