What are some of the reasons why supermarket history is so interesting?

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Andrew T.
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What are some of the reasons why supermarket history is so interesting?

Post by Andrew T. » 08 May 2019 13:05

The research and discussion of old grocery stores isn't exactly a widespread or common field of interest. But all of us are here for that reason. What are some of the reasons why we find this topic interesting?

To me, there are several factors why. A city's supermarket history is often a microcosm of the city itself, paralleling other 20th and 21st century development patterns and population shifts. The research I do reveals stories about corporate foibles, economic pressures, anti-chain sentiments, and urban-to-suburban migration that may be difficult to pick up on in other contexts.

Grocery stores have more social significance than other types of retail stores because they're crucial: Everyone must eat. When I look at a closed or repurposed grocery store, my mind is overcome with vivid thoughts: What did it look like in its prime, with racks of produce, shelves of coffee and canned beans stacked high, and patrons constantly moving in and out through the doors? And what is the neighbourhood like that it once served?

A reason why chain supermarkets are interesting in a way that one-off independents can't always muster is that the very cookie-cutter "sameness" they're decried for results in a wealth of shared experiences and reminiscences that different people in vastly different places can socially connect over. And consistent, chainwide store designs (particularly the more-distinctive ones like Safeway marinas and Kroger superstores) are a fun challenge to look for and photograph on road trips; using physical evidence to piece together the puzzle of a larger entity.

Any other thoughts?
"The pale pastels which have been featured in most food stores during the past 20 years are no longer in tune with the mood of the 1970s."
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Steve Landry
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Re: What are some of the reasons why supermarket history is so interesting?

Post by Steve Landry » 09 May 2019 09:29

Wow, Andrew, as always.............well said and not surprisingly, prescient.

Retail grocery is the mirror and the window of the culture it serves. The necessity of it (everyone has to eat) guarantees a full display of society at large and its evolution.

I imagine the same things when viewing a repurposed grocery store and of course my love of architecture (and art) pulls me in further.

Having worked in the biz for over 25 years ({Food Fair/Pantry Pride}, Publix, King Soopers, Ralphs, Vons/Pavillions, Fresh & Easy), from Bag Boy to District Manager also explains my interest.

My other career in the entertainment / advertising business provides me the understanding of the hows and whys of grocery marketing.

Thank you for your valuable, sage and insightful missive!!

And of course thank you to our awesome host, David, for making all of this possible for so many years.
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TW-Upstate NY
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Re: What are some of the reasons why supermarket history is so interesting?

Post by TW-Upstate NY » 09 May 2019 14:51

Some of my best childhood memories are of going to the grocery store. As I got older and some of the stores my parents frequented went away, I just had to find out why. That's what got me into the nuts and bolts of the whole topic and then you take into consideration the architecture and how grocery stores operated then and it's just too interesting a topic to ignore. There's also the comparison to today's retail grocery environment vs. the past-stores had a LOT more character back in the day. I don't know about you, but I find the store of today way too sterile and doesn't really hold my interest like stores of a bygone era do.

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Re: What are some of the reasons why supermarket history is so interesting?

Post by Groceteria » 10 May 2019 16:12

This is a great topic and one about which I could go on for days and days. That said, I'd really like to hear what others have to say and then add some thoughts myself. (Hints on my motivation: urban spatial history and uncovering the mysteries of how cities grew and developed, shared social history, variation in application of the chain format for different urban environments, general nostalgia, etc.).

Either way, I'm really glad you're all here and that I'm not alone in this!

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Re: What are some of the reasons why supermarket history is so interesting?

Post by Super S » 12 May 2019 01:05

I think what makes it so interesting is the fact that this type of retail exists in some form in every town. When you factor in independents, there are a ton of different takes on store design and presentation.

Certain chains had their unique designs that are still recognizable long after the chain moved on. Supermarkets such as Safeway are mentioned regularly, but this also extends to nonfood retailers as well. Some examples are Kmart, Kinney Shoes, Shell service stations, Circuit City, and others. I have been surprised to discover some areas where some chains operated.

Supermarkets are probably one of the best examples to see how cash registers evolved, going from mechanical registers, to electronic, and being the first form of retail to use scanners. As time moved on, things such as the meat department and deli scales were more integrated, with the ability to print labels with UPCs that could be scanned. We are now seeing self checkouts and devices that allow you to scan while shopping.

You also see some designs that can still look nice 15-20 years later, while others remodel more frequently for various reasons, and sometimes look worse afterward (polished concrete floors fall into this category)

There is a wealth of history in supermarkets which is often overlooked.

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