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What grocery shopping was like the year you were born

  • What grocery shopping was like the year you were born

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have gotten wary of what they’re touching in high-traffic areas like the grocery store. It's now normal to spray down carts with disinfectant or use hand sanitizer before and after shopping. But 100 years ago, grocery stores weren’t set up in a way that allowed customers to handle the products; they’d go into a small shop—likely one that specialized in a specific type of groceries such as produce or dry goods and give the clerk a shopping list. The staff would then gather the items, tally up the bill, and send them on their way.

    Things changed when Clarence Saunders cut the ribbon on the first Piggly Wiggly on Sept. 11, 1916. Unlike the competition, this “modern supermarket” was built on self-service. Shoppers could pick up packages of food and take the time to read the label while shopping. They could choose the biggest, greenest bell pepper from the produce display, and (much to grocers’ dismay) squeeze every last peach to find the perfect ones for their cobblers.

    While self-service grocery shopping is now the norm, it was revolutionary for the time. Customers loved it, and Piggly Wiggly would go on to open at least 530 more supermarkets by 2020. More importantly, the self-service concept would pave the way for the big-box supermarkets we shop at today.

    Grocery stores have undergone a lot of changes over the last century and often looked quite different from one decade to the next. To find out what grocery shopping was like every year since 1920, Stacker took a look at news articles, industry reports, government research, historical documents, and vintage photographs. The research shows how supermarkets progressed over the years, from introducing shopping carts and offering self-checkout to stocking their freezers with low-fat frozen foods and filling their produce displays with organic fruits and veggies.

    Wondering what grocery shopping was like the year you were born? Read on to see how supermarkets have changed every year from 1920 to 2020.

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  • 1920: Chain grocery stores take off

    Chain groceries stores took off in the U.S. in the 1920s. These large businesses commanded economies of scale that allowed them to buy food in bulk, delivering lower prices and a wider selection of products to customers.

  • 1921: Mechanical refrigerators keep food fresh at home

    Manufacturers in the U.S. produced 5,000 mechanical refrigerators in 1921, according to, via The Packer. Throughout the decade, household refrigerators became an essential kitchen appliance, allowing families to store more food and changing how they approached grocery shopping.

  • 1922: Progressive Grocer magazine hits newsstands

    Progressive Grocer, a trade magazine focused on the retail food industry, published its first issue in 1922. The publication would go on to provide information on best practices to independent grocers and supermarkets, as well as chronicle the history of supermarkets.

  • 1923: Coca-Cola introduces six-bottle cartons

    Soda was gaining in popularity in the 1920s. In 1923, Coca-Cola introduced six-bottle cartons, making it easier for American shoppers to pick up a few days’ worth of soda on a grocery run.

  • 1924: Drive-in market opens in California

    In 1924, C.L. Peckham opened the country’s first drive-in market, Ye Market Place, on the side of a commuter highway in Glendale, California, in an effort to serve daily commuters, according to Ryan Reft of KCET. The U-shaped complex of 23 stores flanked a 15,000-square-foot parking lot, allowing customers to make purchases at each store and stash their shopping bags in their cars.

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  • 1925: Terminal markets gain popularity

    Amid increasing urbanization in the 1920s, new terminal markets in major cities allowed fruit and vegetable producers to sell wholesale, rather than direct to consumer. Chicago’s South Water Market opened in 1925, and within 30 years it would start moving at least 500 billion pounds of produce every year, according to Janice M. Kresin of The Packer.

  • 1926: Safeway Inc. is founded

    M.B. Skaggs combined 428 Skaggs stores with more than 300 Safeway stores in 1926. The merger would allow the retail entrepreneur to form Safeway Inc. that year, which would eventually become one of the largest grocers in the country.

  • 1927: Clarence Birdseye perfects fast-freezing foods

    Inventor Clarence Birdseye perfected a technique for flash-freezing foods and maintaining freshness in 1927, according to Tevere Macfadyen of American Heritage. Veggies, meats, fruits, and seafood preserved by the flash-freezing method would hit the shelves of 18 stores three years later, notes Mary Bellis of Thought Co.

  • 1928: Safeway introduces by-the-pound pricing

    Customers could buy certain groceries by the pound, rather than the piece, at Safeway starting in 1928. The move would provide more equitable pricing of the same products, despite variations in size and weight.

  • 1929: Entrepreneurs sell groceries from their homes

    Desperate to make ends meet during the Great Depression, “survivalist entrepreneurs” stocked up on nonperishable foods and sold them out of their homes or vacant storefronts in urban areas, according to Robert Boyd, a Mississippi State University sociology professor. They knew that they could feed their families with anything that didn’t sell.

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