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The Rise Of The Supermarket
It didn’t just change the way we buy our groceries. It changed the way we live our lives.
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
Not surprisingly, the independents fought back, enlisting their customers and communities in what they cast as a struggle for the preservation of local ownership and accountability and a decentralized economic structure—to say nothing of their own livelihoods. A raft of anti-chain store legislation was spawned, mostly at the municipal level, culminating in 1936 with the passage of the Robinson-Patman Act, which mandated federal regulation of wholesale pricing and distribution. The independents also formed so-called voluntary chains, seeking to match the corporate chains’ economies. The best known of these cooperatives is probably the Independent Grocers Alliance of America, or IGA, whose signs still decorate corner groceries everywhere.
Prior to 1912 all grocery stores, chain and independent alike, were fully clerked, credit-and-delivery affairs. In that year A&P began tentatively to introduce what it described as “economy stores” into its system. The clerks remained, but credit and free delivery disappeared. Operating costs were also trimmed by standardization and restriction of store fixtures and stock. A small portion of savings was passed along to the consumer in the form of lower prices. Customers responded, albeit a bit reluctantly at first, by switching their allegiances from more expensive, locally owned establishments to the new economy stores. The independents and conventional chains initially saw little cause for concern. The attrition among their clientele did not yet seem significant, and besides, they retained the lure of liberal credit. In what was still a predominantly agrarian society, cash flow was a sometime and seasonal thing. Credit—be it at the grocer’s or the feed and grain dealer’s, the hardware store or the milliner’s—was not a luxury but a necessity. The independents confidently predicted that the cash-and-carry chains would never gain more than a toehold.
But the nation was already transforming itself around them. The population was becoming measurably more urban, and it was also becoming wealthier, especially in the midst of the euphoric recovery that followed World War I, when the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy waxed in importance, and agriculture waned. An extraordinary transition was taking place. What had formerly been an overwhelmingly self-reliant, even a subsistence economy, was giving way to what was primarily a cash economy. That shift paved the way for the supermarket movement to come.
Society was changing in other ways as well. What would be called the mass media surfaced in the form of national weeklies and monthlies and in the burgeoning public appetite for radio entertainment; the automobile rolled into the mainstream; mobility increased, and distances shrank. Suburbs and planned communities sprang up, residential hermaphrodites that claimed to blend the best aspects of country living with the most desirable qualities of a life in town.
With the nation rearranging itself at such a rate, new retail forms tailored to changing needs prospered. As of 1918, every A&P store in the United States had converted to cash-and-carry. All the ingredients necessary for the creation of the modern supermarket were now in place. It remained only for someone to see them successfully combined.
To that role I nominate Michael Cullen, grocer extraordinaire and leading contender for the title of father of the American supermarket. We are in suspect terrain here, ambiguous and hotly contested territory. The Food Marketing Institute, an industry lobby and research organization, diplomatically allows as how the question of supermarket primacy is “subject to dispute.” If pressed, however, it will come down in Mike Cullen’s camp. A couple of Los Angeles chains—Von’s and Ralph’s—can also lay legitimate claims to having been first, and the term supermarket itself seems to have been formally adopted for the first time by William H. Albers, a former Kroger’s president, who in 1933 founded his own company and called it Albers Super Markets. But it seems to have fallen to Michael Cullen finally to marry the individual elements that, united, form our understanding of what a supermarket is.