The end of June marked a new beginning for one of St. Thomas’ largest retail outlets, as early morning shoppers crowded the door of Kmart at Tutu Park Mall.
The Kmart in Tutu Park held its grand reopening on June 22, which also marked the 25th anniversary of the day Kmart first opened as an anchor store at the newly built shopping complex on the island’s east end.
When the the doors re-opened Friday, they did so on a store with a clean, modernized look. The floor space was filled with gleaming shelves, stocked with merchandise. The fast food kiosk had a freshened facade.
So did the Kmart Pharmacy, which underwent a three-step restoration.
Polished appliances – refrigerators, stoves, washer-dryers – in an understated space towards the back of store.
General Manager Brenda Burrows surveyed her domain on the floor from the back, where her office can be found. She told a visitor the story of how the Kmart management team and an army of associates spent nine months taking the Tutu Park store back from the ravages of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
It wasn’t long after Irma’s passage on Sept. 6 that the recovery began, she said. Burrows recalled being trapped by fallen trees and broken branches at her home on the North Side of St. Thomas. Within a few hours, an ad hoc Kmart rescue team showed up in a truck, armed with machetes.
The loss prevention manager, the shipping manager were among them.
“They were my heroes,” Burrows said.
Arriving at Tutu Park, through wind tossed debris and shredded landscaping, the damage to the store quickly became clear: 18 of the 21 air conditioning units mounted on the roof of the store had broken through the ceiling and left gaping holes.
Pictures taken at the time tell the tale. Soggy merchandise left in piles on the floor. Daylight shining through broken ceilings with machinery dangling dangerously.
Burrows and the team looked it over and came up with a plan. First, bring in associates in an all-hands-on-deck effort to clean the place up. Everyone who showed up to work got waterproof boots and a hard hat.
The cleanup began, even before regional Kmart managers could make it to the stricken St. Thomas store. Then came seemingly endless rain – before, during and after the arrival of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 19.
With every rain, associates mopped up again. And again. Eventually it stopped. By then, Burrows said, the next phase of the strategy was forming.
“Our aim was to reopen the store,” she said. The second goal, to keep Kmart associates off the unemployment line. The manager of the Kmart sister store at Lockhart Gardens Shopping Center helped see that intention through.
Kmart Lockhart Gardens General Manager Kevin Bryan accepted Tutu associates for positions at his store. For the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sale, the entire Tutu Park team came down to assist, Burrows said.
Many of them stayed until shortly before the June 22 reopening, she said. On days when Burrows would drop in at Lockhart Gardens, the question would pop up: “Miss Brenda, when are we going back home?”
For some of the Tutu team, the store after IrMaria became a temporary home. The work of staging a Kmart comeback became a 24-hour task. Shipping, receiving, inventory and loss prevention associates were pressed into service.
As regional and national managers came in to guide the recovery, an environmental assessment team came in as well. That assessment showed the need for an effort greater than mopping up and wiping down.
With that came a revised strategy. The store would recover 10,000 square feet at a time. The first space was ready just before Christmas.
Christmas – a traditional time in the Virgin Islands for sprucing up the home, including the purchase of new stoves, refrigerators, washers and dryers. Add to that the loss of appliances in storm damaged homes.
Up until then, the glass enclosed foyer of the store was covered with paper and signs saying “Store Closed.” Security guards stood at the entrance.
By the third week in December, the papers came down and the doors opened into an appliance showroom. A few yards down, a side door opened to a makeshift Kmart Pharmacy.
Because the top management of the chain granted Burrows latitude in purchasing, she said she was able to parlay appliance sales into a retail cash cow. Customers across St. Thomas came in, seeking merchandise. The job of management was to give the people what they want, from economy models to custom-ordered $5,000 refrigerators. There were also generators for those who needed them.
Appliance sales kept up a brisk pace through January.
“You’re standing in the Number One appliance store in Kmarts anywhere,” the manager said.
Attention then turned to restoring the pharmacy, critical to making a revenue comeback and filling a critical need after IrMaria.
Putting in a brand new pharmacy became a priority, Burrows said. The task before the management team was to pull out the old unit and install a new one. Drug inventories were moved out and put back in with one day’s down time.
By March, 10,000 square feet selling space had turned into 50,000. That gave Kmart, Tutu, a chance to start fulfilling customer demand for such staple goods as totes, trash bags and disposable diapers.
It also gave the store the chance to bring back a small team of cashiers and customer service representatives.
Stacked boxes of items topped with posted prices gave the space the look of a no frills discount store. Shelves cropped up in areas roped off with yellow “Caution” tape. Trailers with shipping containers banked up outside in the parking lot.
The comeback began to unfold before the public’s eyes. The countdown towards a Kmart Grand Reopening was on.
Anticipation was starting to build. The manager recalled a little girl who wanted to rush to the Toy Department all the way in the back.
Burrows told the little customer, not yet.
“You mean, Kmart doesn’t have toys?” the child asked.
With three weeks left until June 22, Burrows called back all store associates from Lockhart. The night before, the store closed early for what became a 25th Anniversary family reunion.
“Because I wanted everybody back to feel they were a part of the rebuild,” the manager said. Drinks and hors d’ouvers were served. Associates and their families were invited to browse the shelves but were told, no buying, not until the next morning when a crowd armed with shopping carts piled up by the doors, waiting for 9 a.m.