- Historic Sites
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
“Then the big meat department. This would be a bee-hive. We would have the confidence of the public. They knew that every other grocery item they picked up they saved money on same, and our meat department would show us a very handsome profit.…
“I was never so confident in my life as I am at the present time; and in order to prove to you my sincerity and my good faith, I am willing to invest $15,000.00 of my own money to prove that this will be the biggest money maker you have ever invested yourself in.…
“Again you may object to my locating two or three blocks from the business center of a big city. One great asset in being away from the business section is parking space. Another is, you can get generally the kind of store you want, and on your own terms. The public will walk an extra block or two if they can save money, and one of our talking points would be, the reason we sell at wholesale prices are that we are out of the high rent district.…
“Before you throw this letter in the wastebasket, read it again and then wire me to come to Cincinnati, so I can tell you more about this plan, and what it will do for you and your company.
“The one thought always uppermost in mind—How can I undersell the other fellow? How can I beat the other fellow? How can I make my company more money? The answer is very simple:—by keeping my overhead down, and only by keeping this overhead down can 1 beat the other fellow.
“What is your verdict?”
The verdict, despite Cullen’s impassioned prospectus, was negative. Within three years Albers would leave Kroger to start his own supermarket chain, but for the present he was having none of it. It later came out that he never even read Cullen’s letter; a subordinate rejected it. Mike Cullen resigned and moved East. In New York City he found a willing partner in Harry Socoloff, a wholesale grocer, and shortly thereafter took out a lease on a vacant garage at 171-06 Jamaica Avenue, in the borough of Queens. There, in August of 1930, the first King Kullen Grocery Company store—the first true supermarket—opened its doors.
“Mike Cullen came out with his first newspaper advertising,” Zim Zimmerman writes in The Super Market . “It was fantastic, unorthodox, contrary to what any experienced advertising man would have considered good copy, but it caught the attention of the people around Long Island.” As well it might have. Mike Cullen’s advertisements ran across whole pages and two-page spreads. Columns of brand names and prices were capped with screaming boldface banner headlines. KING KULLEN, WORLD’S GREATEST PRICE WRECKER , the tag lines declared, and then was posed the rhetorical question, HOW DOES HE DO IT? Here and there were inserted blocks of pithy, combative text. “Chain Stores read these prices and weep. You Wall Street Chain Stores have been making millions from the public for years with your outrageous prices. Chain Stores, drop your prices, give the poor buying public a chance.” When the local papers resisted running his incendiary notices, he had them printed as broadsides and delivered door to door.
The buying public, as prophesied, came in droves. A second store soon followed, and then a third. Cullen’s plan proved popular even beyond his superheated expectations. He threw himself into spreading the gospel so vigorously that when he died suddenly in April 1936 of complications following an appendicitis operation, his friends and family believed he’d worked himself to death. His wife, Nan, took over the reins; the chain her late husband had founded only six years earlier had grown to include fifteen stores, and King Kullen’s competitors, having begun to despair of ever beating him, were moving to join him.
Before long there were dozens of entrepreneurs “wrecking prices” nationwide. Just across the Hudson River, in an abandoned automobile factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Big Bear set up shop as a self-proclaimed “Price Crusher” whose promotions made Cullen’s seem sedate by comparison. There was King Arthur in Newark, Penn Fruit in Philadelphia, and the Dawson Trading Post in Chicago. There was Alpha Beta in the West, Jitney Jungle in the South, and a menagerie of others: Bull Market, Giant Tiger, Great Leopard. Zim Zimmerman’s 1934 survey counted ninety-four supermarkets. By 1936 his census had jumped to some twelve hundred stores in eighty-five different cities. The major chains balked briefly, then plunged. A&P opened its initial supermarket in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1936. The company opened approximately three hundred more in the ensuing twelve months. In the Middle West, Kroger weighed in with its Pay ‘N Takit Supers, and Safeway was hastily converting its units on the West Coast. The chains underwent a sharp contraction, closing smaller neighborhood stores and consolidating their operations into fewer, larger outlets. Assertions that supermarkets were merely a Depression-fueled passing fad proved no more prescient than had the independents’ earlier assessments of the long-term prognosis for chains.