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The Rise of Supermarkets: How Did We Get Here?

There used to be a time when buying local was the only choice. But for most of us, the days of local store-by-store shopping at different individual vendors are long gone. Spurred by technological and economic change, supermarkets have overtaken the local corner stores as the retailers of choice.

Today’s supermarkets are a sign of the mass food production and convenience status quo. A dazzling array of products grab our attention as we rack up miles on our pedometers walking the aisles of these mammoth buildings. To understand how we shifted to a reliance on the supermarkets of today, we must understand their humble beginnings.

The Origin of Supermarkets

Local shopping as it existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries lacked the convenience and choice of modern supermarkets. The extensive supply chains we take for granted today were non-existent.

The only available items were local. Buying non-seasonal produce was not an option. Prices were higher. Shopping required cumbersome travel. Perishables were a huge issue. Shoppers had to wait for merchants to pull requested items from the shelf.

Then, in 1915, Vincent Astor had an idea: an inexpensive food market relying on “economies of scale.” His Manhattan store, Astor Market, offered meat, fruit, produce and flowers.

Within a year, Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly introduced the idea of self-service in a grocery store. The decade was buzzing with activity when A&P (Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company) pioneered chain stores.

In the years that followed, the chain supermarket was born and The Great Depression and growing consumer sensitivity to prices further spurred their growth.

Small, independent vendors fought hard against the trend, and the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 curbed the development. But the promise of convenience and low prices kept the consumers coming in droves.

Warehouses and superstores like Costco and Walmart in the U.S., Tesco in the U.K., and Sobey’s and Loblaw in Canada, continued the trend that pushed smaller markets out of competition.

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The Rise of The Supermarket

So, what led to the rise of the supermarket giants as we know them today? A few key technologies are responsible:

  • Refrigeration. In 1913 home refrigerators hit the market, allowing shoppers to store perishables at home, and expanding the viable options at supermarkets.
  • Automobiles. Ford began Model T production the same year, beginning another American love affair and enabling a style of shopping that involved driving longer distances in a shorter time. Cars also enabled a transportation industry that could more quickly move products around the country.
  • Assembly Line Production. With Ford came the assembly line production process, making manufacturing faster and less expensive. Supermarkets are like reverse assembly lines: customers move through organised aisles of items, picking and choosing their goods as they go.

Refrigeration, cars, and the assembly line, combined with the fact that by 1950 the majority of people had left cities for the suburbs, contributed to the rise of supermarkets.

In 1935, 386 supermarkets represented 3.2% of grocery sales in the U.S. By 1954, those numbers rose to 10,506 and 41.3% of grocery sales.

Progress continued throughout the century and included innovations such as TV dinners and microwaves. In the ‘80s and 90’s computers revolutionised the shopping experience once again, and now, we’ve taken convenience to an all new level where supermarket shopping can be done without leaving the comfort of your home and can be delivered in a matter of hours.

The Future of Supermarkets

The supermarkets of today are some of the largest companies in the world, and are a fundamental part of the modern eating experience. But technology is changing the landscape again, and the supermarkets of tomorrow may not look like those of today.

The next issue of Future of Food Magazine is putting supermarkets under the spotlight and addressing this issue of what will the supermarkets of the future look like. Future of Food Magazine is available on the App Store for iPad. Download your free sample issue now and you’ll automatically receive details about future issues and special editions.

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