Encyclopedia Of Detroit

S.S. Kresge Company

Prior to the advent of discount stores, there were variety stores, which were known for many decades as “dime stores” since many products sold for either a dime or a nickel.  Detroiters shopped at Kresge’s for daily needs such as housewares, linens, clothing, school supplies, cosmetics, toys and seasonal décor.
 
Sebastian Spering Kresge, business associate J.G. McCrory and Charles J. Wilson (Kresge’s brother in-law), opened the first Kresge dime store on Woodward Avenue between Grand River and State Street.  Store #1 at that time was 2,000 square feet, employed 18 associates and carried 1,500 items…none costing more than ten cents.
 
The era of five and dimes ended in 1917 when Kresge’s was forced to raise prices to fifteen cents, due to World War I inflation.  By 1920, the company opened “green front” stores that sold items ranging from 25 cents to $1.00. (Traditional Kresge stores were known as “red front” stores).  That same year, Kresge purchased Mount Clemens Pottery Company, eventually producing 78 million pieces of distinctive dinnerware each year.
 
Kresge, which became one of America’s top three variety store chains, reached its peak in 1935 with 745 units primarily located in the Midwest and eastern U.S.  The firm began a retail innovation in 1952 by converting their stores to a checkout operation. (Previously, one paid a cashier behind each showcase.).
 
Most Kresge locations featured snack bars or luncheonettes.  The chain prided itself on serving thousands of fresh, home cooked meals daily.  Many Detroiters remember popping a balloon for a free banana split or hot fudge sundae.  The luncheonettes featured marble top counters, red swivel stools and the whirl of overhead ceiling fans.
 
Kresge’s was also the spot whee one purchased top 40 records, got keys made, purchased bus passes, bought money orders, got passport photos and savored hot waffle ice cream sandwiches!
 
By 1960, with variety stores being challenged with declining profits, increased labor costs and too many urban locations, Kresge embarked on a new mission that would change retail history forever.  In 1962, Harry B. Cunningham, then President of Kresge, opened the first K-mart discount store, which eventually expanded across the entire country.  By 1987, the last of the Kresge variety stores were sold to McCrory Corporation.
 
Kresge was a vibrant part of Detroit’s community, employing thousands at their stores and utilizing local vendors to stock the stores.  In 1924, S.S. Kresge established the Kresge Foundation “for the benefit of mankind”.  Mr. Kresge provided an inkling of the underlying purpose of the Kresge Foundation, when, in 1924 he stated:
“No person’s life is a success if it is selfishly lived.  I can get a greater thrill out of the idea of serving others, fighting for the church and its teachings, and vindicating the simple principles with which I began life than out of anything else on earth.  I really want to leave the world better than I found it, and I think most men and women feel that way.”
 
The foundation today continues that mission by awarding grants throughout the country to non-profits and arts organizations.

 


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