Let’s Pour One Out for Discount Department Stores

Why we should mourn the passing of this once ubiquitous retail category.

Dennis Sanders
5 min readMar 18


A picture of the Ames store in Lowville, NY. Public domain.

There’s a picture of my Dad from the mid-1970s where he is standing at the counter of a store. I don’t know who took it, but since it was a Polaroid and those were the going camera at the time, my guess it was a store clerk. The picture is significant not just because it’s an image of my father who died in 2015, but where it was taken: at a discount department store.

When I look at the photo, it looks like it was taken at the Woolco store near my childhood home in Flint, Michigan. Woolco was Woolworth’s hipper brother and the chain dotted the Midwest in the 60s and 70s until the chain went out of business in the mid-80s. When we think of discount retailers today, we tend to think of two: Target and Walmart. Those two were the survivors of a certain breed of American retail that is all but extinct these days: discount department stores.

I was reminded again of the demise of this category of retail from a recent article by urbanist Addison Del Mastro where he visits Roses discount store, a regional chain that still survives.

When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, you might see an ad for some product that end with a graphic tailor-made for the region where you lived. That graphic would show the logos of the different discount chains that might have the product in question. Ames, Kmart, Caldor, Zayre, Ben Franklin, TG&Y. With the slim exception of Kmart, most of these chains don’t exist anymore. From the 80s until the aughts, each of these chains became defunct.

It’s easy to say that this is part of capitalism. It’s all creative destruction and all that. And I understand. But I do wonder at times what it says that we have lost this category of American retail. Is the marketplace better or worse?

I think the marketplace is poorer for the lack of these kinds of stores. Del Mastro notes that stores like Roses offered true value instead of a place where everything is cheap. To paraphrase Del Mastro, it’s a place where people can find deals instead of just stuff:

Roses is ultimately interesting because of the lost perspective it offers on the idea of a “deal.” What I mean is…



Dennis Sanders

Middle-aged Midwesterner. I write about religion, politics and culture. Podcast: churchandmain.org newsletter: https://churchandmain.substack.com/