I began writing Supermarket Shopper in 1969 and when I recently finished my 4,000th column, I began thinking about the most important things that have shaped the way you and I shop for groceries today. These are my selections: (1) the creation of the supermarket, (2) the invention of the shopping cart, (3) manufacturer coupons, (4) case-ready meat, (5) bar code scanning, (6) frequent shopper cards, (7) prescription dispensing pharmacies, (8) combination stores, including Wal-Mart Supercenters, (9) shopping for groceries at stores other than supermarkets and (10) product nutrition labeling.
By the 1920s, there were scores of large self-service grocery stores around the country. However, the credit for the first supermarket in America is usually given to Michael Cullen. In 1930, he opened what he called the King Kullen Super Market in an empty building in Jamaica, N.Y. What made it super was the gigantic self-service store; the unusually large selection of more than a thousand items including fresh meat and produce; and the low prices. Mike Cullen had a flamboyant streak and his "Super Market!" advertisements were bold and brash. Instead of shelves, merchandise was piled high in floor displays. Shoppers rushed to the store from all corners of the city to buy the "cheapy" groceries, and Mike Cullen made it easy because the King Kullen store had its own parking lot! All taken together, it truly was a super market.
The credit for distributing the first manufacturer cents-off coupons goes to The Coca-Cola Company in 1895. Grocery product manufacturers used coupons to motivate consumers to try new products. However, it was not until the 1960s that coupons really took off with consumers and became America's favorite way to save money on groceries. When supermarkets began to wage double coupon wars in the mid-1970s, coupons became even more important to budget-conscious shoppers. Eight million shoppers use coupons, and last year, manufacturers distributed 239 billion coupons saving Smart Shoppers $3 billion dollars.
Until the late 1960s, fresh chickens were iced and delivered to supermarkets whole. Supermarkets sold them the same way. It was wet and messy. The bright idea for packaging chickens and parts and delivering them to supermarkets "case ready," came from North Carolina's Holly Farms (now owned by Tyson Foods). In 1964, Holly Farms began delivering packaged chickens to supermarkets on the East Coast. Shoppers welcomed the concept, and it quickly spread.
In 1962, Giant Food, Landover, Md., opened the first pharmacy in a supermarket in Pasadena, Md. Today, more than 9,000 supermarkets have prescription-dispensing pharmacies.
In the 1980s, several supermarket chains around the country opened combination food and discount stores. Wal-mart saw this opportunity and opened the first Wal-Mart Supercenter in Washington, Mo., in February 1988.
While supermarkets were installing pharmacies and taking business away from the drug stores, the 1990s saw the drug stores get even by expanding their selection of convenience groceries. Shoppers were already accustomed to buying groceries in other types of stores. The first membership warehouse club was a Price Club in San Diego in 1976.
Of course, there have been many bright ideas that didn't work. Grocery shopping might have a different look today if an innovation introduced in a store in Nebraska in 1960 had succeeded. When shoppers entered the store, they picked up a rubber stamp instead of taking a shopping cart. Conveyor belts were installed in the aisles of the store. As they selected products, shoppers stamped them and put them on the conveyor belt. At the front of the store, cashiers sorted the items coming down the belts and each shopper's purchases were rung up and bagged. Shoppers were promised a faster checkout and the storeowner hoped shoppers would purchase more because they did not see a cart filling up. It didn't work.
What has been the most important change in grocery shopping for you? Whether you consider the change good or bad, tell me about it. Write to me, Martin Sloane, the Supermarket Shopper, in care of The Vindicator. I publish the most interesting letters.
United Features Syndicate