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The History of Supermarkets

Most people are used to the idea of going to the supermarket to do their weekly grocery shop. Supermarkets are convenient and have most of the things that we are likely to need for the week all in one place, including tinned goods, fresh vegetables, fish and meat and probably even a bakery and deli counter. But it wasn’t always like that. It might surprise you to know that supermarkets are a relatively new idea, so how long have they been around and where did they come from?

Arguably, the first attempt at creating a more convenient, single place for people to shop for their produce was in 1915 when Vincent Astor invested three-quarters of a million dollars in a prime piece of real estate on the corner of 95th and Broadway in Manhattan. On this plot, he opened an open-air store that sold meat, fruit and other produce. Unfortunately, his expectation that people would come from miles around to shop there didn’t come to fruition and he struggled to get the attention of even local people and so his venture failed, closing in 1917.

Up until this time, people were used to a completely different experience when shopping. If you wanted meat, you went to a butcher, if you wanted fresh fruit or vegetables you went to a greengrocer and so on. This experience was more of a personal one as well. Our goods at that time didn’t come pre-packaged in convenient portion-sized containers ready to pick off the shelf. If you wanted a certain amount of cooked ham, you asked the butcher for it and they would slice some for you, weigh it, wrap it and charge you accordingly. Shopkeepers tended to know their regular customers and what their consumer habits were and were an anchor for the community offering plenty of opportunity for social interaction.

In 1916, Clarence Saunders opened the first of his Piggly Wiggly stores in Memphis, Tennessee, where he introduced the concept of self-service. He was awarded several patents for his ideas and the stores were a success, even resulting in him franchising his model. Self-service stores did not sell fresh produce at this time though and concentrated on non-perishable goods, although self-service stores that also included counters where you could buy fresh produce did start to be introduced in the 1920s.

However, neither Vincent Astor’s failed enterprise nor Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly stores can claim to be the first supermarkets. Debates had been going on for decades about who could claim the accolade until the Smithsonian Institution and the Food Marketing Institute came together to define what a supermarket actually is. They said that a store has to have several elements before it can be called a supermarket. These are self-service, separate product departments, volume-selling, discount prices and marketing. This definition means that the debate was able to be settled and it was announced that the first true supermarket was therefore opened in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City on 4 August 1930, by Michael J. Cullen.

The supermarkets came along at the right time as well with other stores such as Safeway jumping on the bandwagon due to the advent of the Great Depression and the demand for lower prices. One of the problems that this created was that the supermarkets became so popular they muscled out the smaller stores and this wasn’t popular with everyone and protests were held against these powerful chains of stores.

However, this didn’t stop their spread, and as the use of motor cars skyrocketed after World War II, so did the use of out of town supermarkets which were surrounded by parking spaces for hundreds of cars.

Although the spread and use of supermarkets was well underway in the USA and Canada by the 1940s, other places around the world were slower to catch on. In 1947 for example, there were only 10 self-service stores in operation in the whole of the United Kingdom.

In 1951, the son-in-law of the chairman of Express Dairies, Patrick Galvani, persuaded the company to open a chain of supermarkets. Called Premier Supermarkets, the first one opened in Streatham, South London and took ten times as much money in a week as the average general store at the time.

Other store chains started to take notice and opened their own supermarkets but in the 1960s some major consolidation took place, especially after Jack Cohen’s Tesco supermarket chain bought Irwin’s, which at the time had 212 stores. This consolidation ultimately led to the four big brands that are known in the UK today, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda, which is now owned by Walmart.

There is a lot of competition between these brands and they will do anything to keep their customers and attract new ones, with lots of competitive discount pricing, lots of marketing including the use of television, radio and online advertising and the use of loyalty cards, which enable customers to receive offers tailored to their shopping habits.

However, the traditional supermarkets that have been so successful around the world are now seeing competition from a new breed of supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi, which due to lower overheads and more streamlined operating models can offer even lower prices to buyers. In the future, the price itself may not be enough as more of us take advantage of the boom in online shopping with its convenient shop at home and have it delivered to your door model. This market is set to grow massively in the next few years. It more than doubled in the United States between 2016 and 2018 from $12 billion to $26 billion and given that the overall size of the US grocery market is over $630 billion, there is plenty of room for growth.

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