Remembering the successful Kresge’s Department Store

Over the past 125 years, many different stores have operated in Red Deer.

However, one of the best remembered stores was not one of the biggest, oldest or fanciest retail businesses. That fondly remembered store was Kresge’s, which was located on the southeast corner of Gaetz Avenue and 49 St. for almost 40 years.

Sebastian S. Kresge opened his first store in 1897 in Memphis, Tennessee. He did extremely well. In 1912, he incorporated his businesses as the S.S. Kresge Corporation with 85 stores.

The retail outlets in the chain were originally called ‘five and dimes’ since the merchandise was generally sold for 5¢ to 10¢. While inflation changed the prices in the stores over the years, Kresge’s continued to offer good quality goods at discount prices.

In the 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, the first Kresge’s store was opened in Canada. While the 1930s were tough economic times for virtually everyone, Kresge’s continued to do relatively well because of the generally low cost of its wares.

Kresge’s also benefited from the fact that, unlike most other discount stores, they included lunch counters where patrons could enjoy an inexpensive lunch or snack while they were shopping. In some locations, full-sized cafeterias and bakeries were included.

Kresge’s enjoyed another large burst of growth in the years following the end of the Second World War. Its discount marketing niche, between traditional ‘five and dimes’ and full-fledged department stores, was very popular with the budget-minded young families during the great post-war ‘Baby Boom’.

Red Deer in the mid-1950s offered the ideal market for Kresge’s.

The City had become one of the fastest growing communities in Canada. The vast majority of the newcomers were young families. Moreover, one of the prime locations in the downtown area, the old Michener Block on Gaetz Avenue, was available for sale at a good price.

Hence, in the spring of 1955, Kresge’s purchased the corner of Gaetz and 49 St., demolished the Michener Block and rapidly began construction of an impressive two-storey, yellow brick store.

A sparkling 33-seat lunch counter was included along the south side of the establishment. A mechanical horse was placed by the front entrance for the enjoyment of young children.

The new store opened on Thursday, Nov. 3rd, 1955, in plenty of time for the profitable Christmas shopping season. There were several impressive bargains offered to entice shoppers into the store.

Pleated wool skirts were sold for only $3.98 each and celasuede gowns were offered at only $1.37. Children’s corduroy overalls could be purchased for 98¢ each and quilted reversible jackets were only $3.77. For those thinking of popular Christmas gifts, there was a wide selection of children’s toys available from $1 to $2.

As expected, large numbers of shoppers poured into the store for the grand opening and during the following weeks and months. Sales were remained strong in succeeding years, thereby confirming to management that they had made the right choice in deciding to open an outlet in Red Deer.

Kresge’s remained faithful to its basic marketing strategy over the next decades.

People enjoyed having a well-stocked discount store in the heart of the downtown. The lunch counter was so popular that many people stopped by to have their lunch there.

Eventually, fundamental changes in retail put a squeeze on Kresge’s. The opening of large indoor malls on both the North Hill (Parkland) and on the south side (Bower) put a squeeze on Red Deer’s downtown. Large discount chains such as Woolco, which opened in the Parkland Mall in 1970, put additional pressure on a store like Kresge’s.

Kresge’s created its own mall discount stores, K-Mart, to compete. However, because the traditional Kresge’s store in Red Deer continued to do reasonably well, a K-Mart outlet was never opened in the community.

Finally, in 1994, Walmart entered the Canadian retail scene with the purchase of the Woolco chain. The Kresge’s parent company decided to close all the remaining Kresge’s stores across Canada. It is perhaps an indication of the popularity of the Red Deer outlet that it was the last Kresge’s store in Alberta and one of the last dozen in Canada to be closed.

The yellow-brick building remains standing on its downtown corner location, along with a myriad of fond memories of the old store.

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