The Rise Of The Supermarket

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The relentless drive for efficiency has come to be symbolized today by the new electronic check-out scanners. Reading the printed bars of the Universal Product Codes stamped on nearly everything sold, the scanners permit store managers and owners instant analysis of sales trends while eliminating the need to take inventory. The check-out line moves faster, allowing a reduction in the number of cashiers. Unknown a little more than a decade ago, the scanning systems are now operating in approximately ten thousand stores. Encountering one for the first time, listening to the stream of digital beeps, and reading the magically itemized register tape, shoppers might well react as their forebears did to Clarence Saunders’s Keydoozle and walk out “pop-eyed.”

Indeed, there is a cyclical feel to many aspects of supermarket history. Just as the Depression prompted the demand for lower food prices that helped push the supermarket into prominence, so the recession of the 1970s laid the groundwork for what’s been called warehouse or no-frills retailing, which some industry insiders suggest may be the next “new method.” I have before me a stack of supermarket trade publications, journals with names like Chain Store Age , Progressive Grocer , Supermarket Business , and Mass Market Retailers . These are service magazines, and what they’ve focused on mostly of late has been the emergence of the superwarehouse store, a concept that is to today’s standard supermarket what King Kullen and Big Bear were to the conventional grocery of the thirties. The new superstores and super warehouse stores are cavernous places, some of them as big as sixty or seventy thousand square feet. Like the first supermarkets before them, they concentrate on price. Most offer volume discounts and few of the amenities of a typical supermarket. Many sell goods directly from pallet loads of cartons or crates. Is this the shape of things to come?

The first supermarkets stocked about one thousand items; by the 1950s they were offering six thousand.
 
A trade journal said last year that the “conventional supermarket” had “outlived its usefulness.”

“In a sense, the conventional supermarket in many markets has outlived its usefulness,” Ken Partch, the editor of Supermarket Business , says in an April 1984 editorial entitled “Will Only the ‘Big’ Survive?” “The causes for the great changes taking place in the ’80s appear to be somewhat similar to the causes of the ’30s, although there are also differences. The causes of the ’30s that gave birth to self-service were economic, social and psychological. These are the same causes for today’s great changes. Seen in that light it is quickly realized that this wave of change cannot be stopped but only temporarily held back.” Mass Market Retailers calls the superwarehouse store a “concept which has struck fear into the hearts of retaileVs around the country,” and to Progressive Grocer it is “The New Breed.” Writes Ken Partch: “If the supermarkets of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s could follow the consumer into the suburbs, then the … super warehouse store can now follow the consumer into exurbia via the superhighway.… In order for the independent to participate in the change to the new breed of grocery retailing, he needs access to things that only large capital and new operating methods and techniques can supply.” Mike Cullen would feel right at home.

I drove out to Queens not long ago, on a sort of pilgrimage, to seek out the site of the first supermarket. The day was cold and gray under a slanting winter rain. The decades have not been kind to Jamaica Avenue, as the neighborhoods it crosses have slipped inexorably from suburb to slum. At the corner of 171st Street I found Quasar Liquors, whose owner conducts business from behind a bulletproof Plexiglas shield. Most of the rest of the stores on that side of the street were long gone.

Across the avenue, where I figure King Kullen’s must have stood, the World’s Greatest Price Wrecker was nowhere in evidence. There was a discount auto parts supplier, a machine shop, and a nameless corner bar whose curled and faded window placard promised “Topless Go-Go Dancers 7 Nites.” The sidewalk was deserted.

This is America, land of the possible, where we keep our eyes fixed on the future and our backs turned toward the past, and nobody, I suppose, understood that better than Mike Cullen. The chain he established is still thriving, an institution on Long Island. Still, it seems a shame to me that this spot goes unmarked. If every inn where George Washington ever slept can count itself a shrine, then surely King Kullen deserves at least a small sign, one of those dignified little bronze tablets you find posted alongside secondary routes, framed in black and gilt. HERE STOOD THE FIRST SUPERMARKET IN AMERICA , it might say, and then, if Mike Cullen could have anything to do with it, SALE IN PROGRESS .