History of the Supermarket

Supermarket Concept Development

Up until the beginnings of the 19th century small grocery stores—generally under 1,000 sq. ft.—sold non-perishable goods such as canned foods or packaged foods; flour, sugar, salt and crackers were scooped from huge barrels and sold by the unit or pound, and salted bacon and jerked beef were kept ready for sale in a cool dark place. For years, the town grocery store as known as the “dry grocer.”

In the early part of the 19th century, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company began opening chain stores in different towns. Butchers and greengrocers opened shop near to the dry grocers to draw off of their greater drawing power.

Before the chain stores came into being the goods sold by the dry grocer were generally those that could not be grown or harvested on a home garden or farm. With the advent of the chain store, traveling drummers (salesmen) were able to make deals to the various stores in a chain and make it profitable through the quantity of the goods purchased, to freight items to the chain stores that they had never before offered for sale. Fabrics, sewing notions and a variety of food items began to flood the stores. These items were well received by customers who were looking for some convenience and luxury items.  

In 1916, Piggly Wiggly stores of Memphis introduced the shopper to the concept of self-service shopping. These stores were known as “grocerterias” because they were reminiscent of the cafeterias becoming popular at the time.

In the 1920’s chain store development exploded with A&P operating over 10,000 small stores with 2 to 3 employees working behind the counter. The days of free home delivery and monthly charge accounts began to be discontinued. In 1926, huge mergers of small stores and chains resulted in the creation of Safeway stores,

Beginning in the 1930’s grocery companies such as Ralphs of Southern California expanded into ever larger grocery stores. Also, “drive-in markets” were making their debut where butchers, bakers, grocers and produce markets all operated independently under one roof with a large surrounding parking lot. Customers were often under the impression that the conglomeration was one business.

King Cullen Stores opened the first store,—widely hailed as America’s first supermarket—a bazaar operating in a warehouse sporting concessions, a huge selection of groceries were sold out of the boxes they were shipped in. Emphasis was on price with no thought given to décor.

The supermarket concept continued to evolve as chain stores would build a huge store that drew customers from further away while closing five of their own neighboring stores. This was a brilliant strategy that dramatically lowered expenses while actually increasing sales.

These new super stores offered the customers everything they needed under one roof; fresh meat and vegetables, baked items and even food that was already prepared and all sold alongside the dry groceries that the stores began with in the first place.





Encylopedia of Chicago

Grocery Stores and Supermarkets