The Rise Of The Supermarket


In his 1955 manifesto The Super Market: A Revolution in Distribution , M. M. (“Zim”) Zimmerman, a trade editor and publicity man who became one of the supermarket’s earliest champions and, over the course of his long career, indisputably its preeminent proselytizer, defines the creature as follows: “A Super Market is a highly departmentalized retail establishment, dealing in foods or other merchandise, either wholly owned or concession operated, with adequate parking space, doing a minimum of $250,000 annually. The grocery department, however, must be on a self-service basis.” Updated somewhat, that definition still holds, though it was drawn from the first number of the first volume—dated 1936—of Zimmerman’s defunct trade publication Super Market Merchandising . The business has grown some. The Food Marketing Institute reports that 1983 average sales per store, industrywide, hovered near the eight-million-dollar mark. Concession operations, whereby independently owned departments—a butcher, for instance, or a baker or a greengrocer—did business under the supermarket’s aegis, have long since been abandoned. Several other defining characteristics also apply. Supermarkets are super. When the first of them burst upon the scene more than fifty years ago, they were often eight or ten times the size of standard groceries. Supermarkets, now as then, deal in low margins and high volumes. They are amply stocked, usually offering a wide variety of national and private-label brands. They often feature loss leaders, goods sold at or below cost for the sole purpose of attracting customers. They tend to be located away from crowded downtown centers, within driving distance of large populations. They emphasize convenience and price, and they are, like Ernest Hemingway’s famous café, reliably clean and well-lighted places.

Michael Cullen’s was a life in the grocery trade. He joined A&P as a clerk at eighteen and stayed for seventeen years before moving on. In 1929, when he was forty-five years old and employed as the manager of a Kroger’s branch store in Herrin, Illinois, he addressed a long letter to the company president, William Albers. In it he presented the essence of a career’s worth of experience and observation. He knew how the grocery business operated, he said, and he believed he could do better. Cullen sought Albers’s and Kroger’s backing for a string of five prototype supermarkets, “monstrous in size,” to be opened in low-rent facilities several blocks off any main drag. The key to his plans lay in the conviction that by moving a great quantity of merchandise rapidly through his stores, he would be able to show a profit with much lower markups than had hitherto been thought possible. “This is the kind of cut-rate Chain of Wholesale selling direct to the public that I want to operate,” he explained in his splendid harangue.

Cullen’s formula: “I could afford to sell a can of Milk at cost if I could sell a can of peas and make 2¢.”

“I want to sell 300 items at cost.

“I want to sell 200 items at 5% above cost.

“I want to sell 300 items at 15% above cost.

“I want to sell 300 items at 20% above cost.

“I want to gross 9% and do a grocery, fruit and vegetable business of $10,000.00 per week, and make a net profit of 2½% on the grocery department, and 3% on the meat department.…

“Can you imagine how the public would respond to a store of this kind? To think of it—a man selling 300 items at cost and another 200 items at 5% above cost—nobody in the world ever did this before. Nobody ever flew the Atlantic either, until Lindbergh did it.

“When I come out with a two page ad and advertise 300 items at cost and 200 items at practically cost, which would probably be all the advertising that I would ever have to do, the public, regardless of their present feeling towards Chain Stores, because in reality I would not be a Chain Store, would break my front doors down to get in. It would be a riot. I would have to call out the police and let the public in so many at a time. I would lead the public out of the high priced houses of bondage into the low prices of the house of the promised land.

“I would convince the public that I would be able to save them from one to three dollars on their food bills. I would be the ‘miracle man’ of the grocery business. The public would not, and could not believe their eyes. Week days would be Saturdays—rainy days would be sunny days, and then when the great crowd of American people came to buy all those low priced and 5% items, 1 would have them surrounded with 15%, 20%, and in some cases, 25% items. In other words, I could afford to sell a can of Milk at cost if I could sell a can of Peas and make 2¢, and so on all through the grocery line.

“The fruit and vegetable department of a store of this kind would be a gold mine. This department alone may make a net profit of 7% due to the tremendous turnover we would have after selling out daily and not throwing half the profit away, which is done at present time in 25% of the Chain Stores throughout the land.