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What is a Blue Light Special?

A Blue Light Special is a surprise discount offer, historically signaled by a flashing blue light in Kmart stores, enticing shoppers with limited-time deals. It's a call to bargain hunters, signaling an unmissable opportunity to save. How did this iconic sales tactic evolve, and does it still exist today? Join us as we explore the legacy of the Blue Light Special.
Lori Smith
Lori Smith

Kmart® is a discount department store best known for its iconic blue light special sales gimmick, consisting of surprise announcements when price-cuts were offered for a limited time on specific merchandise. At the beginning of each random sales blitz, the phrase "Attention Kmart® shoppers..." heard over the store's loudspeaker generally preceded a proclamation of the bargain item. Concurrently, a flashing blue siren light, similar to the one atop many police cars, illuminated the area. Customers then flocked to the designated department to take advantage of the sale. During the height of its popularity, the campaign was often successful in eliciting a shopping frenzy, especially since the discount typically lasts no more than 15 minutes.

Developed by Kmart® in the 1960s, the blue light special campaign was instituted to increase sales. It was successful for several decades, but was phased out in 1991. Ten years later, in 2001, the marketing ploy was revived, but the return of the famous sporadic event was short-lived. Buyers were not as enthusiastic about it as they were in the past. Kmart's® competitive edge may have diminished due to the influx of big-box discount stores, such as Walmart® and Target®, where value-priced items were marketed in a more contemporary, less intrusive, manner.

A flashing blue siren light, similar to the ones atop police cars, was commonly used during Kmart blue light specials.
A flashing blue siren light, similar to the ones atop police cars, was commonly used during Kmart blue light specials.

At the time, Kmart® suffered from financial difficulties which ultimately led to a filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Subsequently, the corporation worked to restructure marketing efforts. Since the iconic sales blitz was as famous as the brand itself, the company initiated a website called BlueLight.com, which gave the financially-troubled corporation a much needed presence on the World Wide Web (WWW). Shoppers were then able to visit Kmart® stores via the Internet to access the discounted merchandise from the comfort of their own homes, sans the sporadic flashing lights and loudspeaker announcements.

Some items that are bought at discounted prices may be referred to as a blue light special, no matter where it is purchased.
Some items that are bought at discounted prices may be referred to as a blue light special, no matter where it is purchased.

It was not until 2009 that the blue light special was once again reintroduced to the Kmart® shopping experience. Customers are not likely to see the once-familiar siren light flashing in the store anymore, however. Now, most locations only participate in the program during the weekends, if at all. The decline in popularity is probably attributed to the negative connotation associated with the bargain blitz.

Items that are part of a blue light special are often sold for a deep discount.
Items that are part of a blue light special are often sold for a deep discount.

Sometimes, the phrase "blue light special" is used to describe a cheap item, regardless of where it may have been purchased. The term dates back to the 1980s when it was often used in a derogatory manner. During the era, many feature films, such as Beetlejuice, Rain Man and Ruthless People, made somewhat unfavorable references to the store's well-known campaign. During that time, the phrase became part of the vocabulary of popular culture.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly was a Blue Light Special?

Blue light specials are typically surprise sales.
Blue light specials are typically surprise sales.

A Blue Light Special was a surprise price reduction offered for a limited time in Kmart stores. It originated in the early 1960s and became a cultural icon. When announced, a blue police-style light would flash in the store, signaling shoppers to a specific discount. This marketing tactic created a sense of urgency and excitement, encouraging customers to take advantage of the deal before it ended.

How did shoppers know when a Blue Light Special was happening?

Shoppers were alerted to a Blue Light Special through an in-store announcement, often accompanied by the phrase "Attention Kmart shoppers!" The flashing blue light, mounted on a mobile cart, was then wheeled to the relevant department, drawing customers' attention to the discounted items. The spontaneous nature of these specials added an element of surprise to the shopping experience.

Did Blue Light Specials offer significant savings?

Yes, Blue Light Specials were known for offering significant savings on a variety of products. These deals were designed to clear out inventory quickly, so discounts were often substantial to entice immediate purchases. While the exact amount of savings varied, the specials were a cornerstone of Kmart's value proposition to customers looking for deals.

Are Blue Light Specials still offered at Kmart stores?

Blue Light Specials were discontinued and then sporadically brought back over the years as part of promotional campaigns. However, with the decline of Kmart and the closure of many of its stores, the Blue Light Specials are no longer a regular feature. The few remaining Kmart stores may occasionally use the concept for nostalgic marketing purposes.

What impact did Blue Light Specials have on retail marketing?

Blue Light Specials had a significant impact on retail marketing by introducing the concept of flash sales and in-store promotions that create a sense of urgency. This strategy has been adopted in various forms by other retailers and has evolved with technology, influencing online flash sales and limited-time offers that are common in e-commerce today.

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Discussion Comments

anon949643

There was a Walmart where I lived in TX (late 70s/early 80s) that tried to copy the lighted special--with a red light instead of a blue one. I don't remember being in the store much when they did it.

pollick

I don't remember the blue light specials being particularly great bargains. It seems like they were mostly in the 20% to 30% discount range, which was better than no discount at all but not enough to pull in a crowd.

Ruggercat68

I grew up near a K Mart store, and I remember following the cart with the blue light around the store, hoping it would end up in the toy department. It usually went to the women's clothing department or the small appliances department. I still remember hearing the announcement of a K Mart blue light special over the store's PA system. It would always begin with "Attention, K Mart shoppers...".

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    • A flashing blue siren light, similar to the ones atop police cars, was commonly used during Kmart blue light specials.
      By: Alfonso de Tomás
      A flashing blue siren light, similar to the ones atop police cars, was commonly used during Kmart blue light specials.
    • Some items that are bought at discounted prices may be referred to as a blue light special, no matter where it is purchased.
      By: Kenishirotie
      Some items that are bought at discounted prices may be referred to as a blue light special, no matter where it is purchased.
    • Items that are part of a blue light special are often sold for a deep discount.
      By: Ljupco Smokovski
      Items that are part of a blue light special are often sold for a deep discount.
    • Blue light specials are typically surprise sales.
      By: auremar
      Blue light specials are typically surprise sales.