An ode to the grocery store
May 17, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
It feels great to be home again dear readers – I breathe easier being back in my normal, happy routine. It’s the simple things in life you miss when you shuttle back and forth across the country – things like sleeping in your own bed, being awakened by the snoring of your pups, homemade jam with toast for breakfast, the way the sunlight cuts across your dining room table, and shopping in your own grocery store.
Did you know the American grocery store was such a phenomenon Queen Elizabeth had to check one out on a royal visit in 1957?
Any of my close friends will tell you I’m a bit obsessed with grocery stores. When I moved to Arizona that was my first mission – find my new grocery store. As I work remotely, the grocery store is a bit like my regular social outing. It’s something I look forward to. Ever since I can remember, grocery shopping has been my happy place. The Instagram-worthy display of the macaroons in the bakery display, the smells and warmth of fresh bread, and the bold colors of the season’s bounty in the produce department – how can you not be seduced? Let’s dive in on the history of this institution and let me know what you think of this ode to the grocery store in the comments!
Where it all began
Today we’re spoiled by well lit, sprawling stores where your cart can be filled with all manner of tasty delights. In the early 20th century that wasn’t the norm. Look around your living room readers – this was the typical square footage of a neighborhood grocery store. Inventory wasn’t thoughtfully displayed, rather it was along the walls or behind the counter. There was no stacking of oranges with adorable signage up in here! Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the 1900s grocery shopper and today – the lack of mobility and control. Think about it – in today’s stores you craft your own destiny. Free to meander, hop on your phone for coupons, and load up your cart. You can wander around filled with indecision to your heart’s content. But back in the day, you had to come into the store with clear intent, able to verbalize your entire list to the shopkeeper right away.
Picture yourself in the 1900s grocery store. Can you feel the pressure to be organized already? Well while you’re considering that, also consider that in the early days of grocery shopping you would have to give up convenience. Want bread? Off to the baker down the street. Need meat? Onward to the butcher with you! This quaint system could have carried on for decades until a sassy little upstart called A&P opened in 1912.
You down with A&P? Yeah, you know me…
The first A&P didn’t have some of the bells and whistles the mom & pop stores offered (letters of credit or delivery services), but they offered clear, fair pricing. You may not think that’s a big deal, but trust me – there was a lot of interesting pricing schemes afoot. In addition to pricing their inventory, they also were supply chain rebels. A&P only stocked what sold and set their hours to accommodate the peak shopping times.
While today these concepts seem like responsive business practices at their best, remember this all happened in 1912. A&P paved the way and by 1920 had expanded across the nation. A decade later still and they had 16,000 stores in the US of A. Their success was not singular. Piggly Wiggly, which has perhaps the best name in grocery store history, improved upon the A&P model by introducing the revolution that was self-service. Glory to the grocery cart!
Check out this pictorial history of the grocery store
This level of expansion funded their bravest idea yet – controlling the supply chain itself. A&P started manufacturing staple products – even started carrying some dairy and meat products. I can’t imagine the butchers were too keen on this offering! In time, this new grocery empire had ruffled one too many feathers. By the early 1930s A&P was hit with an anti-trust suit. When you think about it, the motivation behind this suit isn’t any different than the concern people feel with the new Amazon grocery stores – fear. Fear that in our desire to save a buck, to become ultra-efficient, we are going to lose our humanity. This is a topic we’ve chatted about before.
The future’s so bright we’re gonna need shades
I’ll spare you the details of how the A&P story evolved – the economy improved, ushering in a period of tremendous growth. Their store brands gained more notoriety and their business practices informed the grocery stores we know and love today. You may be asking yourself – how does this tale end? As we grasp toward more and more efficiency, more and more space soaked in bad fluorescent lighting, what are we left with? Robot grocery shopping – where will my beautiful macaroons go??
Author Michael Ruhlman thinks it will all come full circle. He theorizes that our love for online shopping will revitalize the boutique grocery shopping experience. As people start having the staples delivered to their doorstep, our beloved grocery store will face another evolution – becoming smaller and more specialized. He sees a world of high-end macaroons and that’s a future I want to live in, how about you?