Friday, January 3, 2020

The Day the Closeouts Died

Big Lots #5387
131 E. International Speedway Boulevard, DeLand, FL - Northgate Shopping Center

     Happy New Year everyone! As we jump into the future with a new decade, why not start off the year with a "Store of the Future"? As I mentioned in my last MFR post, today we'll be taking a look at Big Lots' new "Store of the Future" concept, which began to roll out in late 2017. Even though I'm about 2 1/2 years late to bringing you guys the future, at least I'm getting to cover it before Big Lots moves onto something different! Anyway, the purpose of the Store of the Future is to re-imagine Big Lots as a "community focused discount store", which is quite the change from the chain's roots as "The Closeout Store". But before we get into all that, I'd like to do a little bit of time travel into the past. While Big Lots is in the building now, I'd like to begin today's post by talking about what used to be here: Kmart.

Kmart #4869 / Sears Essentials #25XX
101 E. International Speedway Boulevard, DeLand, FL - Northgate Shopping Center

     In 1993, Kmart opened this store on the northern side of DeLand to replace the town's much smaller store on South Woodland Boulevard, placing Kmart in a larger, more modern building at the same corner as the town's original Walmart. Kmart lasted in this building until 2005, when this store was chosen to be one of about 50 Kmart stores throughout the country to be converted to the new Sears Essentials format. With inland Volusia County lacking a full-line Sears store of its own, putting a Sears Essentials here made sense. However, Sears Essentials as a whole was a bit of a flop. Even though the concept was formally shelved in 2006, this store continued to operate under the Sears Essentials name until 2012, when Sears Holdings finally shut down all remains from the failed Sears Essentials concept, including the handful of other Sears Essentials stores remaining in Florida at the time.

     From early 2012 until early 2019, DeLand's old Kmart looked like this: empty. These pre-conversion photos are some (virtually) dusty old ones of mine from 2015, showing a lifeless building sealed up with hurricane shutters.

     The building was all sealed up, so I did a quick spin around the parking lot for some exterior photos. The faded red stripes on each side of the facade are a 90's Kmart relic, flanking both sides of the big red 'K' logo upon this store's opening in 1993. The stripes are still there to this day, now painted white with a Big Lots logo placed between them.

     On the far left side of the building was the garden center, which like the rest of the store, was all sealed up.

     Upon this building's revival in 2019, the garden center side became home to a Tractor Supply store, which relocated from an oddly placed, quite hidden freestanding building further north on Woodland Boulevard. Tractor Supply uses the old garden center for their outdoor supplies and equipment, but I forgot to walk over to this side of the building for pictures during my revisit in late 2019.

     Here's one last look at Kmart's former DeLand store from its abandonment days, before we jump back into the time machine to late 2019 for a look at this store's eventual fate (which is a common fate for former Kmart stores these days): becoming a Big Lots.

     While the exterior of this building remained unchanged during the renovations, the interior was completely gutted so the three new tenants (Big Lots, Planet Fitness, and Tractor Supply) could build out their respective interiors from scratch. Instead of seeing a vast amount of Kmart relics in today's post, we'll be able to focus on the latest out of Big Lots: their "Store of the Future".

     I've mentioned Big Lots' "Stores of the Future" a few times on the blog, including in my last MFR feature post about the store this one replaced. Today we'll actually get to see what all of these changes have brought to the company, and how these new stores are nothing like their predecessors.

     Interestingly, Big Lots left half of Kmart's original entry vestibule in-tact. While the double sliding entry doors are new, the exit door just beyond that is left over from Kmart's standard 90's entryway design, which looked like this. Besides that door, that's where the Kmart relics end, as the interior is 100% modern Big Lots. That's the focus of today's post, so let's head inside and see what changes are in-store...

     Why, hello there! Entering the store, we're cheerfully greeted by this sign, welcoming us to our community Big Lots.

     Turning around, we see a lot of empty space before us, with the furniture department taking up the entire center of the salesfloor. While Big Lots has sold furniture for years, that department is quickly becoming the company's centerpiece, with these new stores dedicating nearly half of the available floor space to nothing but furniture and mattresses. While furniture is becoming a large focus of Big Lots' retail strategy, it's not going to be the focus of our attention right now. I'd like to take us on a spin around the perimeter of the store before jumping into the furniture department at the very end. With that being said, let's turn to the right and see what other merchandise we can find in here...

     Turning the camera to the perimeter of the store, housewares take up the right side of the building. As part of the "Store of the Future" strategy, Big Lots has decided to focus their stores on what's called the company's four "winnable" categories - essentially, the departments Big Lots feels sell the most merchandise in their stores. Those four "winnable" categories are furniture, housewares, seasonal merchandise, and food. As part of the changes, about 80% of what Big Lots now sells falls into one of those categories, with the remaining 20% of Big Lots' merchandise mix coming from toys, health and beauty, pet supplies, household chemicals, small electronics, and hardware. Even with the breakdown into "winnable" categories, Big Lots still places some focus on toys, health and beauty, pet supplies, and household chemicals, running various ad campaigns and special buyout promotions on these products. The small electronics and hardware departments are still there, but take up no more than an aisle a piece, a vast reduction from what Big Lots used to carry in these categories a decade ago.

     Obviously, the "Stores of the Future" were designed to push the emphasis on those four "winnable" categories mentioned before. Furniture is clearly the most important of those four categories, with that department given the prominent front and center placement upon walking into the store (like we saw before). Housewares take up the entire right side of the building, with seasonal taking up the front left corner of the store. Food takes up the back of the building, but gets prominent wall signage that can be seen from the front of the store, with one having to venture through the higher mark-up furniture, housewares, and seasonal stuff to get to the lower mark-up food items. The less "winnable" categories get shoved into the back corners of the store, reflecting the lower emphasis Big Lots now places on these products.

     All that merchandising stuff aside, the photo above looks into the front right corner of the building, home to the checkouts. The seasonal merchandise is just out of frame to the right of the checkouts, but we'll see all of those things in more detail later in this post.

     Shifting our attention away from the front end, we'll begin our walk through the store by looking into the front right corner of the building. While we see area rugs, wall art, and bedspreads here now, there used to be a KCafe in this very spot during the building's previous life. You'd never know that now with how well this building was stripped out, but maybe in your mind you can picture a KCafe here, the smell of Little Caesar's pizza filling the room and the taste of a cherry ICEE on your lips...

     Alright AFB, you didn't write this post to daydream about retail in the 1990s, you wanted to use this time to share with everyone the Big Lots of the 2020s! Moving along now, here's a look down the store's main right side aisle. The aisles of housewares line the right perimeter, with furniture spilling into the main aisle from the large furniture department. Another thing to point out with these "Stores of the Future" is that the aisles are color coded in these stores, with the aisle marker signs color coded with the matching wall decor. For the housewares side of the store, the aisle markers are blue. Food in the back has orange signage, with seasonal on the left using teal. Not-yet-remodeled Big Lots stores use these same aisle markers, but they're white throughout the entire store.

     The main signage for the Home department hangs in the back of this double-wide aisle. The new department signage uses Big Lots' exclamation point logo in a creative way, tying in the company's classic spokes-punctuation to this new era of store design. The addition of the stock photos is also a new thing for Big Lots, and make the signage seem a little more lively.

     Looking down the store's right side wall we find small appliances, with plastic storage tubs appearing further down the aisle.

     Following housewares, we find cleaning supplies in the back right corner. The last few aisles along the right side wall are home to grocery items, overflow from the back aisles.

     Restrooms are in this little alcove in the back of the store.

     Inside the restroom alcove is this little patch of faux tiling behind the water fountains, a bit of a fancy touch for these new Big Lots stores.

     Looking across the back of the store, the main grocery aisles appear to my right, color-coded in orange.

     Another new feature in these "Stores of the Future" is the addition of the warehouse style shelving for bulk products like cases of water and multi-packs of paper towels. These shelves are usually found along the back wall of the store. This store, interestingly, did not have the small frozen food section that many other Big Lots stores have. If it did, the remodels move the coolers to the back wall, next to the bulk shelving.

     Here's a close-up of the bulk shelving, in addition to a close-up of the grocery department wall signage (designating this department as the "Pantry", to make it sound fancier in these fancy new stores).

     If I remember correctly, health and beauty took up the last few aisles of the grocery section as you reached the back left corner of the store. Turning the corner to look back toward the front, this is what we see. This side of the store, the left side, is predominantly home to seasonal merchandise. The seasonal stuff, however, is located closer to the front of the store. The back left corner, where I was standing to take this picture, is home to a tiny hardware selection, an aisle of electronics, pet supplies, and the toy department.

     The entirety of the hardware department can be see to my right, located against the left side wall. Back in the day, Big Lots used to have about 2-3 aisles of hardware, with things like paint, doorknobs, and all kinds of random tools. With the "Store of the Future" focusing more on froofy home goods, hardware got kicked to the curb, shrinking to just a few feet of shelving shoved into the corner. The hardware selection was rather sad, actually, consisting of only some hand tools, Command hooks, and packing supplies. The packing supplies stuffed into the hardware department are an after effect of Big Lots abandoning the sale of office supplies in mid-2019, with these few rolls of tape, bubble wrap and envelopes being the only products kept from that department.

     As we move closer toward the seasonal department, we find more furniture spilling out into the main aisle.

     The seasonal department wall signage could be seen here, peeking out above the shelving.

     This was my attempt at a less-obstructed view of the Seasonal signage, but the overhead lighting glared most of the sign here.

     Even though I took these photos in September, the seasonal department was all decked out in Christmas fare. While there were still some more trees to be put out, most of the ornaments and other decorations were fully stocked for those wanting put out the Christmas decor in the wake of their Labor Day parties.

     Even though the Christmas trees were becoming the center of attention for the Seasonal department, what remained of the (much more appropriate for September, as this is Florida after all!) patio furniture was pushed into an open area at the end of the main aisle

     Now that we've completed our circuit of the store, we'll take a short plunge into the centerpiece of the store: the furniture department. As I mentioned in the past, Big Lots has become the nation's 8th largest furniture retailer as of the 2017 sales rankings. While 8th place doesn't sound like much, it's the highest ranking for a store that doesn't exclusively sell furniture (like Ashley HomeStore, Rooms To Go, or IKEA). That fact in mind, it also means Big Lots sells more furniture than Walmart or Target does. However, Big Lots' broader selection of furniture (including offering items like couches and mattresses, things Walmart and Target don't sell) probably helps push them ahead of their discount peers in terms of furniture sales. Big Lots sold $1.4 billion worth of furniture in 2016, and I'm sure that number has increased since the broad roll out of these "Stores of the Future".

     As part of the company's new focus on furniture, Big Lots purchased the Broyhill brand at a bankruptcy auction in February 2019. Big Lots bought the rights to the name in order to make Broyhill, a long established brand in the furniture business, their own house brand for furniture. In December 2019, Big Lots launched their new Broyhill collections, creating special Broyhill sections within their furniture departments. Broyhill is intended to be Big Lots' new "premium" brand of furniture, with their other offerings acting as a lower priced alternative. I feel this move goes to show how much of an emphasis Big Lots wants to put on their furniture selection, as well as how they want to become one of the country's leading furniture retailers, specifically in the discount spectrum.

     I took these photos long before the new Broyhill stuff came in, but I'm sure a little corner of this department is now dedicated to the stuff. Big Lots has a few sofas and some tables bearing the Broyhill brand, as well as some patio furniture, as of January 2020. Even though the selection is limited at the moment, a larger roll out of the brand (featuring more furniture pieces and even Broyhill branded housewares and soft goods) is expected come in Spring 2020.

     Couches, recliners, and such can be seen here, with the grocery department peeking out in the background.

     Here's a look into the furniture department as seen from the back of the store. Those hanging wooden fixtures with spotlights designate the location of the furniture department, as furniture itself lacks any kind of signage.

     There were some posters hung throughout the furniture department, like this one, being used to emphasize Big Lots' new approach as a "community focused discount store". Big Lots' new tagline "Serve Big. Save Lots." (featured on the sign), also reinforces this concept.

     Now that we've poked around the furniture department, we return once again to the front end. Like the furniture department, the front check lanes also have the hanging wood fixtures overhead.

     Another nice little touch for the "Stores of the Future" are the custom designed lane lights. For the last decade or so, Big Lots has just been using orange light bulbs on a stick for their lane lights. The custom designed lights give the front end a much cleaner, nicer look, as Big Lots works to improve their image with these newer stores.

     Leaving Big Lots, here's a quick peek at the other new occupants of the former Kmart building: Planet Fitness and Tractor Supply. Tractor Supply took the Kmart building's original street address of 101 E. International Speedway Blvd., with Planet Fitness becoming 111 E. International Speedway. I probably should have walked over to Tractor Supply to see how they reused Kmart's old garden center, but I didn't even think about that during the time I was here.

     Overall, Big Lots' "Store of the Future" looks really nice. The store was clean, well presented, and modern, and certainly a big jump from the feel of the Big Lots stores of the past. While the visual appeal is there, I can't say I'm a huge fan of the merchandise changes Big Lots is making with these new stores. I don't think the focus on furniture is a bad thing, as that move is a good one to let Big Lots stand out from the crowd. However, what I don't like is how Big Lots is becoming, as I've said in the past, essentially Home Goods with a large grocery department. I liked how Big Lots used to sell a little bit of everything, and how they used to make a shopping trip feel like a treasure hunt for unexpected bargains. Considering how deeply Big Lots has ingrained itself into society as a destination for closeout merchandise from a broad spectrum of categories, trying to de-emphasize a shopping category they made famous seems like a bad move, especially in a time when closeout and off-price stores are all the rage. Now Big Lots isn't totally abandoning closeout buying with these changes, but most of their merchandise is now regularly offered products compared to the random deals and buyouts of the past. Grocery is the one section of the store where there are still a decent number of closeout surprises to be found, but certainly not to the extent there once was. It's crazy to think that a company that would buy anything if it was given the right price - up to and including DeLoreans - has become this.

     While the thought of Big Lots and strange old cars is still fresh in our mind, I'll conclude this post with this oddball car I spotted in the Big Lots parking lot. Walking by I thought the car looked a bit different, but what really threw me off was when I noticed the steering wheel was set to right hand drive! Although it looks older, this car is a 1991 Nissan Figaro, which was a special edition, limited production car only made for the 1991 model year. Only 20,000 of these were ever made, all with the intention of being sold in Japan. With that being said, this isn't a car you'll come across often, let alone in the United States. The Figaro gained quite a bit of popularity due to its cutesy retro-throwback look, and a small number have been imported into the United States (like the one here) due to its fun design and cutesy appeal. Here's an article with a nice little write-up about the Figaro if you feel inclined to learn more about it.

     So from the Big Lots of the future to cutesy Japanese convertibles of the past, we cover it all here on MFR! That's all I have for today's post too. If you have any thoughts on the next era of Big Lots, feel free to share them in the comment section of this post.

Until the next post,



  1. I agree with what you said; the visual appeal is here, but it's a bit unfortunate to see the merchandise mix change so much from their past. However, I guess that's why this model is called their "store of the future," haha! I think it'd be kinda fun to see one of these in person, but as I wrote in a comment elsewhere on the internet (think it may have been on flickr), my local Big Lots appears to have received all the remodel it's going to get, that being a very slight refresh that didn't do much at all to implement all the nicer elements of this new look. That said, I do believe the merchandise has changed to be in line with the new format.

    I hadn't realized Big Lots got out of office supplies - guess that makes sense though, I can't imagine those selling all that well. And that's pretty cool about the DeLorean giveaway!

    1. These new stores are really a big change from the Big Lots most everybody knows, whether that's to be interpreted as a good thing or bad thing by shoppers. I guess the changes are showing some kind of merit, as Big Lots has become quite aggressive with the rollout of these new stores and the new format. I remember you mentioning those changes from the Southaven Big Lots. The Big Lots in Cocoa recently got a similar "remodel", shuffling the departments around but doing nothing else (like adding any of the fancy decor pieces). All the stores are receiving the merchandise changes from the stores of the future, as my local store (which hasn't yet remodeled) also removed the office supplies and greatly expanded the furniture department.

      Yeah, it's pretty weird to think about how Big Lots played a part in the crazy demise of the DeLorean company!

    2. If you ever find yourself near one of these newer Big Lots stores, they're worth a visit at least once just to fully experience how significant the changes are.

  2. On Gunn Highway in Tampa, the Big Lots moved from an old store location to a newer location, which I believe was an old Sports Authority.