History of the supermarket industry in America
The 1930 opening of the first King Kullen supermarket marked the start of redefining what a grocery market experience could be. Instead of the usual offering of dry good groceries, King Kullen offered the convenience of thousands of products, not only in one location but under one roof. For the first time, a grocery store offered a bakery department with fresh-baked bread, a meat department with an on-staff butcher, and an expansive produce department—all available for purchase through one checkout line.
While this may not seem extraordinary by today’s standards, this was the first of many supermarkets that offered such a variety of products in one store. Since then, we’ve developed a number of conveniences and technologies that have evolved the supermarket past its bare-bones structure. The invention of the shopping cart came shortly after in 1937 and was vital to efficient and profitable shopping within this supersized grocery landscape. In 1974 the price scanner, a technology that would significantly cut down the wait times in checkout lines to this day, was first installed. Most recently in 2020, Amazon opened its first cashier-less Amazon Go grocery store in Seattle, Washington, taking its completely staff-less convenience store model and applying it to the supermarket scale.
The history of the supermarket is in many ways a reflection of the history of America in the 20th and 21st centuries. Through World War II, the Great Depression and Recession, and climate change, companies have had to adapt the ways they market to consumers and meet their needs. Starting from a variety of neighborhood specialty shops, evolving into chain stores, and then eventually into massive one-stop chain supercenters, grocery stores have become a neverending point of innovation. Stacker compiled a list of 30 important moments in the history of the supermarket industry in America from news, industry data, and government reports. See how America’s supermarket industry has evolved over time.
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1915: Vincent Astor founds Astor Market
Built on the Upper West Side in New York City by Vincent Astor, son of American businessman John Jacob Astor IV, the Astor Market was the first attempt to use economies of scale to lower the cost of groceries during a time of increased prices brought on by World War I. The market sold everything from meat to produce to flowers—much of what can be seen in supermarkets today. However, the market was a bit ahead of its time—customers still preferred small, local shops, to large, all-in-one marketplaces and it closed its doors in 1917.
1916: Piggly Wiggly becomes the first self-service grocery store
Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly in the fall of 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee, and developed the first-ever self-service grocery store. Previously, grocery shoppers handed over a list of goods they wanted to purchase to the store clerk, and the clerk fetched the products for them. At Piggly Wiggly, customers were free to roam among the goods and pick out goods they needed or that happened to catch their eye. Saunders was meticulous about arranging items in an appealing fashion and also began the practice of marking all items with a price to help customers shop smarter.
1920s: Regional chain grocery stores enter the market
The 1920s brought a wave of small chain grocery stores including Kroger, Loblaws, and A&P. These stores were counter-service stores that were manned by a few clerks who would fetch items for customers. The items they sold were limited to mostly dry goods, as they didn’t sell meat or produce. These small chains developed uniform branding and customer loyalty across different regions.
1924: Ye Market Place introduces the drive-in market
With growing numbers of households that owned cars, C.L. Peckham came up with an idea to profit off of the increasing number of daily commuters. In 1924, Peckham opened Ye Market Place in Glendale, California, on the side of Los Feliz Road, a commuter highway away from any other businesses. Ye Market Place had 23 separate stores built in a U-shape, with a parking lot in the center. Customers could shop at each store and store their items in their cars as needed. While these stores were not under one roof, it was the beginning of customers embracing department-oriented shopping.
1929: Families sell food in their homes during the Great Depression
The Great Depression left the country in a bleak state, leaving families desperate to find a way to make an income. Some enterprising amateur grocers began to sell groceries to their neighbors in their homes or abandoned storefronts. They would bulk buy nonperishable goods and consume whatever they weren’t able to sell. Several became family businesses now worth billions.
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1930: King Kullen becomes the first grocery store
By 1930 King Kullen was founded in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City. Unlike the other markets of its time, King Kullen sold thousands of different products in one store with various departments for produce, meats, dairy, baked goods, and other dry goods. This multidepartment large grocery store earned the title of the first supermarket, according to the Smithsonian Institute. Due to the inventions of cars and refrigerators in the 1920s, the supermarket concept proved to be successful with customers.
1937: Self-checkout is first introduced
The ever-inventive Piggly Wiggly founder Clarence Saunders felt he could take his efficient, self-serve supermarket to the next level by introducing self-checkout. He hoped to fully automate his grocery chain with his self-checkout invention named the Keedoozle. Sadly, the Keedoozle was a complete flop, because the technology kept failing. It seems that Saunders’ idea was a little ahead of its time.
1937: The shopping cart is invented
Prior to 1937, grocery stores provided customers with a small wire or wooden basket to carry their items while they were shopping. Grocery chain owner Sylvan Goldman noticed that at his Humpty Dumpty supermarkets, customers would start to head for the registers once these hand-held baskets got too heavy. In order to create a solution that would encourage customers to keep shopping, he teamed up with a local mechanic to create a prototype of what would become the shopping cart.
1950s: The international aisle is born
After World War II, there was renewed interest in international foods born from servicemen who had served abroad. However, the definition of international food during that time was limited to canned LaChoy chow mein and spaghetti and pasta sauce. While international offerings have since expanded in mainstream supermarkets, this was the beginning of including a more diverse set of products in grocery aisles.
1952: Bar code technology is patented
Joseph Woodland was working at Drexel Institute of Technology when he set out to create a way for grocery store checkout queues to move more quickly as well as hasten the process for taking stock of goods. He came up with the concept of a bar code (later named Uniform Product Code or UPC) while sitting on a beach in Miami and drawing his fingers through the sand. However, even though he successfully invented the bar code, he was unsuccessful in creating the technology to scan it.
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