“Created during the Great Depression,” Hammonds said, “the supermarket first delivered self-service and low prices, then boundless variety, healthy fresh foods, one-stop shopping, convenient prepared foods, and now gourmet, ethnic and organic offerings.
“Today the supermarket endures as a concept more than a single format. Whether consumers are shopping at a conventional supermarket, combination food-pharmacy store, a supercenter or a warehouse outlet, the business model remains the same: affordable prices, vast variety, abundant fresh foods and convenience.”
Among its contributions over the past 75 years, the supermarket:
- Has decreased the cost of food to nearly 6 percent of disposable U.S. family income — the lowest of any country in the world — and down from 21 percent in 1930 and 50 percent in the 19th century.
- Provides consumers with ever-increasing variety. The corner grocery store of the 1920s carried about 700 items, most sold in bulk, and consumers had to shop elsewhere for meat, produce, baked goods, dairy products and other items. The supermarket brought all these products under one roof. The number of products carried climbed to 6,000 by 1960 to 14,000 by 1980 and to more than 30,000 today.
- Delivers one-stop convenience — a life-saver for today’s time-starved soccer moms and dual-income families. Even the first stores featured health and beauty care items, electrical supplies, auto accessories and lunch counters. Today the offerings include prescription drugs, flowers, magazines, greeting cards, photo developing, banking and other services, along with a growing assortment of ready-to-eat and -heat foods.
- Helps pioneer technologies to improve efficiency and customer service, most notably the bar code — now ubiquitous across numerous industries. Recent innovations such as self-scanning, online ordering, electronic shelf labels and computerized carts and kiosks are enhancing the shopping experience from the home to the aisles to the checkout.
- Promotes consumer health and well-being by offering a host of fresh, nutritious foods — including year-round produce. Supermarkets employ nutrition professionals to help customers prevent illnesses and manage chronic diseases through healthy diets. Stores also bring in nurses to check blood pressure, bone density and cholesterol levels.
- Serves communities with compassion, supporting food banks, schools and other vital institutions. In the times of greatest need, such as the hurricanes that swept Florida in 2004, supermarkets are among the first businesses to reopen, dispensing water, medical supplies, batteries and other essentials.
It is recognized that the first supermarket was a King Kullen store opened August 1930 in Jamaica, NY. The King Kullen store, comparable to today’s no-frills warehouse outlets, served as the catalyst for a new age in food retailing, selling more than one thousand products. The company promoted the store unabashedly as “The World’s Greatest Price Wrecker!”
Other companies pioneering the supermarket concept in 1930 were Piggly Wiggly in Tennessee, Ralphs Grocery Company in California, and the Texas-based Weingarten’s Big Food Markets and Henke & Pillot, which was purchased by The Kroger Co. in 1956.
Key to the early success of the supermarket were the shopping cart, introduced in 1937, the automobile and free parking lots, and mechanical refrigerators in the home and store, eliminating the need for melting blocks of ice. More recently, the supermarket has kept pace with diversifying lifestyles demanding year-round produce from a global marketplace, ethnic foods, organic offerings, upscale and gourmet delectables, and a host of nonfood products and services — all sold at competitive prices.
‘A Uniquely Democratic Institution’
“Over the years,” Hammonds said, “the supermarket has always responded to consumer demand for several reasons:
- “Families shop at their stores an average of twice a week, continually demonstrating what they demand.
- “Technology has given us the ability to track what consumers like and don’t like with increasing precision and speed.
- “With a net profit of one penny on each dollar of sales, companies have virtually no margin for error, making supermarkets relentlessly competitive in discerning exactly what their customers want.
“All these factors have made the supermarket a uniquely democratic institution. By what they purchase, families vote hundreds of times each week. Products that fly off the shelves are the winners, and those that don’t soon disappear.
“The supermarket is the epitome of free choice and free enterprise,” Hammonds said.
“That supermarkets can deliver this consumer service is a logistical marvel,” he said. “The aisles, lined with thousands of products, are restocked weekly through millions of deliveries from all parts of the world. And yet, while the cost of life’s other necessities — housing, healthcare, education — ever escalates, the family budget for food as a percentage of income continues to decline.
“As we mark the supermarket’s 75th birthday, consumers may want to pause the next time they walk the aisles of their favorite store. The boundless variety, the low cost, the brand quality, the abundant fresh foods, the one-stop convenience are all part of this ever-changing economic miracle that touches every American family every day.”
Links to Two Photos of Supermarkets From the 1930s:
1. Caption: The supermarket was invented to meet consumer needs during the early years of the Great Depression. Pictured here is a typical early supermarket. Click here for photo
2. Caption: The supermarket shopping cart (foreground), introduced in 1937, enabled customers to easily gather large amounts of groceries in a single trip. Click here for photo