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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
A symbiosis quickly evolved between the nascent supermarketing and massmerchandising movement and American business and popular culture. The rise of the supermarket was changing the way we live even as advancing technologies and changing social norms were making that rise possible.
Consider, for example, the business of food processing, packaging, and distribution. Without dramatic changes in each of these areas the supermarket as we know it today could not exist. Because supermarkets depend for their profits on high sales volumes, it follows that consumers must buy in large quantities. But in the absence of hygienic processing and packaging and of any sort of efficient means of home refrigeration, buying perishable foods in bulk was simply inconceivable. New packaging and processing methods and the advent of the domestic refrigerator changed that forever.
Similarly, supermarkets, to maintain their low overheads, were obliged to seek alternatives to hiring an army of clerks to cut and package meats, produce, and even some groceries. This demand grew for precut and prepackaged products. Clarence Birdseye had perfected his process for flash-freezing foods in 1927 and sold it to the General Foods Corporation, but before frozen food could gain any broad popularity, better commercial freezer cases had to make their way into supermarkets. To facilitate self-service shopping, packaging took on a markedly increased importance. Where previously many items had been distributed to stores in bulk containers and broken down, or packaged individually for each patron, most groceries now had to arrive at the store already wrapped and boxed in what producers judged to be convenient sizes. Finally, as more women joined the work force during the Second World War, the time set aside for cooking the family meals dwindled. Processed and precooked foods came along to fill the gap.
It is probably fair to suggest that the advent of mass marketing made mass media advertising inevitable. It seems equally valid, though, to surmise that without advertising mass marketing could not have endured. Again a mutually dependent relationship evolved. In the supermarket, advertising and packaging merged. The product’s package acquired an added responsibility, having not only to supply protection in transit to the store but also to project a unique and identifiable image on the shelf. Much of what we have come to regard as typical about consumer advertising developed in conjunction with the supermarket.
In a 1952 report on supermarkets, Business Week quoted the industry pioneer Roy Dawson, who had predicted as early as 1933: “Some day, supermarkets will do nearly all of the business all over the country. It’s inevitable because it’s cheaper, because people have automobiles, and because they like to shop. It’s the new method of retailing.” Dawson’s reasoning was as accurate as his forecast. From the first, supermarkets sought to make shopping an entertainment rather than a chore. In the main they succeeded. Piped-in music, bright lights, and colorful displays, in some cases even in-house child care, coffee shops, and lounges—all contribute to the sense of a visit to the supermarket as a pleasure trip. Indeed, shopping has become a social phenomenon. In Washington, D.C., where there is a preponderance of young, single people, the Georgetown Safeway is highly regarded as a place to go looking for potential dates. And the suburban shopping mall—the supermarket’s direct descendant—is typically filled with browsers who go there primarily to pass the time.
Supermarkets cannot be called the cause of highway shopping malls and strip development, nor are they to blame for the decline of the nation’s downtowns. That unhappy honor belongs to the automobile. But the supermarket undeniably blazed trail by demonstrating conclusively that consumers would go out of their way to shop. The same reasoning that led Mike Cullen to an empty garage in Queens prodded other sorts of merchants to follow, taking up residence on the city’s edge. Large spaces, low rents, easy access by car, and ample parking are as important to supermarkets today as they were to Cullen in the thirties.
The markets themselves have changed, of course. The first King Kullen unit occupied six thousand square feet and stocked about a thousand items. By the 1950s, when three new supermarkets were opening daily, stores averaged twenty thousand square feet and carried six thousand-items. Nowadays an up-to-date standard supermarket might sprawl over more than thirty thousand square feet of floor space and sell as many as eighteen thousand different items. Chains remain prominent, though some, like A&P, have recently been struggling.