By June Mathews
When I was growing up, a Friday night family outing often meant a trip to the old K-Mart in Roebuck. In those days, the retail options in Trussville were limited, so to shop one of the big-box discount stores required a bit of travel. It was less than 10 miles away, but for some reason, the distance seemed greater back then.
We’d wander up and down the aisles, checking out everything from the newly-stocked merchandise to the clearance racks. While Mama and I scouted for bargains among the household goods and clothing items, Daddy and my brothers headed over to the toy and automotive departments.
We ultimately reconvened at The Grill (the snack bar at the back of the store), where we sipped Cokes, shared a bag of popcorn and waited for the next Blue Light Special to come along.
For the benefit of anyone who may not know – or after all these years, remember – Blue Light Specials were surprise announcements of deep discounts offered for a limited time, usually 10 or 15 minutes, on specific merchandise. A cart equipped with a flashing blue light atop a tall pole was rolled to where the bathmats or motor oil or whatever was displayed, and that’s when the fun began.
As the light was activated, an announcement came over the PA system: “Attention, K-Mart shoppers! For the next 15 minutes, we’re offering a Blue Light Special in (for example) our girls’ department on pullover shirts for $1.50…” prompting the mothers of young daughters from all over the store to rush toward the blue light as if it were the end of the rainbow and girls’ pullover shirts were the gold.
Speed was essential since supplies were always limited, and the desired size or color or quantity might not be available but a minute or two. And as inventory decreased, the possibility for all-out warfare on the sales floor increased.
I once watched in utter fascination as two grown women staged a near-catfight over the last size12-husky pair of boys’ jeans on the rack. I honestly thought fists were about to fly, and I couldn’t decide whether to flee or stick around for the show. As it was, a salesperson stepped in to defuse the situation.
Depending on the item(s) offered, Mama might join the rush to the flashing light or send one of us kids to scout out the merchandise. We never knew what we’d leave the store with – a huge bag of sandpapery toilet tissue, a pair of ill-fitting $1.99 Keds knockoffs for each member of the family or a giant economy-size box of powdered laundry detergent that seemed to last forever.
One of Mama’s more memorable purchases was a package of men’s patterned boxer shorts featuring bright green shamrocks on white. I don’t think Daddy was especially impressed with his new undergarments, but he wore them anyway. Better new shamrock boxers than raggedy old plain ones, I guess.
At age nine or ten, I considered the Friday night K-Mart excursions great fun. But as I moved into my teen, I began snubbing family time in favor of dates, school activities and spend-the-night parties.
Now, though, I’d give just about anything to experience one of those Blue Light Special nights again. No, they weren’t fancy occasions or big sporting events or beach vacations – all of which we also had plenty in those days.
They were just no-frills times of family togetherness with a flashy touch of discount store excitement thrown in.
And for my clothes-conscious classmates who thought the white skirt with big brown polka dots and matching knit top I wore the first day of junior high was exceptionally cute: Yep, even though I would have DIED before admitting it, that outfit was a Blue Light Special purchased during one of those family outings.
Now don’t you wish you’d gone to K-Mart on Friday nights back then, too?
Email June Mathews at firstname.lastname@example.org.