Everyone has to eat and grocery stores—in one form or another—have been around for centuries.
Many folks today remember the mom-and-pop corner grocery stores in the small-to-medium-sized towns where they grew up, as well as the early stores of some of the big chain groceries.
In the mid-1850s, it was smaller, regional grocers who supplied the greater amount of goods to American families, usually from a shop of about a thousand square feet in size. And rather than selling everything under the sun, as today’s groceries do, grocers of the time were known as “dry goods” stores, where dry items, canned goods and other non-perishable items could be purchased.
On the other hand, if you wanted meat or produce, there were butchers and greengrocers, respectively, but you wouldn’t find all three types of goods under a single roof at that time.
Chain grocery retailing didn’t become popular until sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century, relying chiefly on those regional groceries to build into bigger entities. For example, the Piggly Wiggly stores, established by Clarence Saunders in Memphis, Tenn., in 1916, are acknowledged as being the shop that introduced self-service shopping to American consumers. Another contender for that title was the Alpha Beta store in Southern California, which experimented with the concept at about the same time.
The Flapper Era ushered in by the 1920s in America saw chain grocery stores begin to become a dominant force in food retailing. Regional players such as National Tea, Kroger and American Stores expanded considerably, while the regional Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) steadily established a national presence.
In 1926 Safeway Stores were created by Charles Merrill (of Merrill Lynch fame) by merging the Sam Seelig stores in Los Angeles with the Skaggs Cash Stores chain operating in Northern California and the Northwestern United States. Two years later, Safeway had purchased the West Coast Piggly Wiggly shops and later bought MacMarr Stores and Sanitary Stores in Washington, D.C.
America’s first “supermarket” was arguably the King Kullen store in New York City, opened by Michael Cullen, a former executive of both A&P and Kroger. He put the store in a warehouse on the edge of the city, offered free parking and created a marketplace-type atmosphere.
At King Kullen’s store, nobody paid any attention to ambiance — foodstuffs were sold straight out of packing cartons, emphasizing volume without any frills. Cullen expected his store to do the volume of a hundred conventional stores.
The word “supermarket” eventually found its way into the American lexicon and at first was representative of small regional chain stores and independent shops. But it didn’t take long for the bigger chains to see the value in the concept and by the late 1930s, A&P consolidated thousands of smaller service shops into larger new ones. A&P cut its number of stores by half by 1940 and still increased its sales.
Other major brands — Safeway, Kroger and Big Star — went through the same process, consolidating smaller stores into larger units that could service the same or greater numbers of people and make greater profits.
After people migrated to the suburbs in the 1950s, supermarkets followed them, with bigger and splashier stores offering more and more to people with disposal incomes. The 1960s saw amenities such as carpeting and specialty departments invade supermarkets, and by 1972 a new prototype appeared — the superstore — pioneered by Kroger.
Discounting took hold at around the same time, with trading stamps being eliminated in favor of cost cutting and reduced operating hours. By the 1980s, warehouse type stores were common and the larger chains had moved to an upscale model, with some chains working both the upper and lower ends, although using different names for each.
Today, the big chains proliferate across the country, offering everything imaginable as well as some things you might not have thought of. At the same time, small mom-and-pop operations can be found here and there, on a corner in an old neighborhood of a big town or front-and-center in a small burg.
After all, people have to eat, don’t they?
Did you know … ?
Piggly Wiggly was the first to
• provide checkout stands.
• price mark every item in the store.
• feature a full line of nationally advertised brands.
• use refrigerated cases to keep produce fresher longer.
• put employees in uniforms for cleaner, more sanitary food handling.
• design and use patented fixtures and equipment throughout the store.
• give shoppers more for their food dollar through high volume/low profit margin retailing.
• franchise independent grocers to operate under the self-service method of food merchandising.