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100 Years of Food Retailing: 1952-1961

Supermarkets thrived during an era of convenience and modernization

100 Years of Food Retailing

• Intro
• 1922-1931
• 1932-1941
• 1942-1951
• 1962-1971
• 1972-1981
• 1982-1991
• 1992-2001
• 2002-2011
• 2012-2022

Everything was getting bigger — consumers’ homes, stores and Progressive Grocer

Starting with its October 1952 issue, the magazine’s publishers dropped “The” from the title and switched from the pocket-size format established over the prior three decades to a larger size — a move that symbolized developments going on in the industry at the time.

As the editor at that time explained, “In recent years it was felt more and more that a pocket-size magazine was a bit out of step with this vital, dynamic business of food retailing, where the volume was growing [by] leaps and bounds, stores were getting bigger and bigger, and dealers were adding more and more departments.”

Indeed, reacting to the post-World War II economy, grocers were building larger stores that featured more self-service sections, air conditioning, specialized lighting and modern equipment, and more ample parking. Exterior and interior décor also took on a new look as retailers experimented with neon signs, stripes and pastel colors. And the round turntable checkout counter was designed to help speed up a part of the supermarket that had become an irritation for customers.

100 Years of Food Retailing:
New, larger stores from regional chains such as Stop & Shop drew large crowds of curious shoppers.

It was a decade of great expansion that saw the number of larger-format supermarkets more than double — from 14,000 in 1950 to 33,000 in 1960 — to keep pace with population growth that would reach 180 million people by 1960.

Additionally, more people were migrating to expanding suburban housing developments around major cities. Also, as the federal interstate highway system was developed and auto registrations climbed, people could more easily travel to shop.

Investments and Acquisitions

To fund these new stores, many retailers upped their investments, while others looked to acquisitions for growth.

Winn-Lovett, a Southeast chain that was steadily growing by buying other chains, changed its name to Winn-Dixie in 1955, after purchasing the 117-store Dixie Home chain. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Food Fair (which later became known as Pantry Pride) branched out geographically when it purchased Setzer’s Supermarkets, a 40-store chain in the Jacksonville, Fla., area, in 1958.

100 Years of Food Retailing:
By the end of the decade, supermakerts had clearly established themselves as the places to buy food.

At least one retailer — Albertsons — grew by becoming a public company in 1959. The retailer had already made a name for itself in Washington, Utah, Oregon and Montana, and by the end of the decade operated 62 supermarkets, five drug stores and one department store.

Also in 1959, Safeway opened its first store in the new state of Alaska, becoming the first major food retailer to enter the market.

A number of established regional chains constructed new warehouses to help supply their stores. In 1951, Publix built a 125,000-square-foot warehouse and headquarters complex in Lakeland., Fla., while Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop built a central bakery, a perishable goods distribution warehouse and a grocery distribution center, all in Massachusetts, around the same time.

As for smaller independent grocers, an increasing number of them saw the need to join together with wholesalers to remain competitive as chains expanded. Wholesalers helped them bargain for lower prices, and assisted with store construction and financing, central accounting and advertising.

Companies such as Fleming, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Winston and Newell, and Wakefern, to name just a few, aided family-owned grocers in different regions of the country. In 1954, Winston and Newell changed its name to SuperValu, and during the following year it strengthened its presence by acquiring 12 regional food wholesalers.

By the end of the decade, supermarkets had clearly established themselves as the places to buy food. While in 1950, the supermarket accounted for 35% of sales in the food sector, by 1960 that figure had jumped to 70%.  

  • Key Grocery Industry Developments

    Regional chains were offering new services and opening more stores during the ’50s.

    • In Texas, H-E-B opened its first bona fide supermarkets, consolidating a fish market, butcher shop, pharmacy and bakery under one roof.
    • Stater Bros., a relative newcomer to California, was operating 23 locations by the end of the decade.
    • By the end of 1959, West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee was operating 37 stores.
    • In its January 1955 issue, Progressive Grocer reported that “shopping around for food is practiced by about three out of five housewives.” The characteristics that turned one store into their “favorite” included convenience, quality of products, low prices, and a “generally attractive atmosphere and appearance.”
    • Some retailers turned to trading stamps to attract more customers, while other retailers promoted that they weren’t required. Central Market, owned by Golub Corp., claimed to be one of the first grocery chains in the country to issue S&H Green stamps, and Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle introduced its own trading stamp program, Profit Sharing (P.S.) Blue Stamps. By 1962, trading stamps had peaked, with estimated sales of $671 million.
    • Technology was growing in importance. Hy-Vee opened a data-processing department in 1954, while Compton, Calif.-based Ralphs, an early convert to computer technology, introduced an electronic store billing system at its new warehouse in Glendale, Calif. IBM ran an ad in PG touting its new 650 data-processing device, with “vast storage capacity and split-second computing” to speed order processing and enhance management reports.
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