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What is a Blue Light Special?

By Lori Smith
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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Discussion Comments

By anon949643 — On May 06, 2014

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.

By pollick — On Feb 13, 2014

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.

By Ruggercat68 — On Feb 12, 2014

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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