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01/01/2012

1920s: A Decade Of Promise

During the period often associated with bootleggers and flappers, the grocery industry was on the verge of some exciting changes of its own.

Ninety years is a significant milestone by any standard. At Progressive Grocer, we are especially proud to celebrate not only our publication's introduction and notable achievements throughout the past nine decades, but also — and more importantly for our readers — the amazing evolution of the American supermarket, including the multiple people and organizations that have made its growth possible.

While the supermarket didn't officially make its debut until 1930, much of what was happening in the 1920s set the stage for its birth.

Back in 1922, the year The Progressive Grocer was first published, our nation was at an interesting cross roads. With what later became known as World War I over for four years, the Roaring Twenties became a decade of promise and optimism, with modern technology (automobiles, radio, gas stoves and electric refrigerators, to name a few) creating a "sky's the limit" mentality. The United States sat on top of the world as an economic power-house, with no forewarning of the stock market crash of 1929 that would lead to the infamous Great Depression.

Food processing was advancing significantly, with canned and frozen foods, ready-to-make mixes and, indeed, even sliced bread cutting a swift path into stores across the land.

During this era, mom-and-pop grocery stores ruled the landscape, and their shops were considerably smaller and more limited in selection than what we see today. Butchers and produce vendors traditionally had been operated separately, but often in close proximity to grocery stores for consumer convenience.

Small regional chains such as the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (A&P), Kroger, American Stores and National Tea were around and

growing their presence, selling basic nonperishable foods with counter service. These retailers were leading the movement to transition from credit and delivery to cash and carry.

By 1920, A&P was already running an impressive 4,638 stores. That store count included the first "no-frills" grocery format, the A&P Economy Store, in Jersey City, N.J (the same city where Progressive Grocer's East Coast office is located today).

In fact, the chains were doing so well that in 1926, a group of independent grocers in the Northeast banded together to form the Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA), a national trade group that allowed the independents to obtain the same wholesale discounts as the large chains. That effort continues today.

Also in the 1920s, Clarence Saunders began opening his Piggly Wiggly stores, which are widely credited with introducing Americans to self-service shopping. The first store opened in Memphis, Tenn., in 1916, and there were more than 2,600 stores by 1929. During the 1920s and 1930s, other grocery stores followed Saunders' direction and converted to self-service.

Another of America's largest grocery chains, Safeway, was also founded during this decade. In 1915, M.B. Skaggs purchased a store from his father in American Falls, Idaho, and by 1926, there were 428 Skaggs stores in 10 states. He almost doubled the size of his business that year when he merged his company with 322 Safeway (formerly Selig) stores.

Demonstrating the growing importance of the newest mode of communication, the "A&P Radio Hour" was launched in 1924 as America's first national radio program.

New Magazine Hits the Scene

The rapid advancements in industry — food processing in particular — provided ample impetus for "The National Magazine for Retail Grocers" to quickly establish itself as the premier source of "practical, helpful information of what the other fellow is doing to get more business and to make more money."

The inaugural issue of The Progressive Grocer featured an introductory letter that called for more cooperation among retailers and wholesalers. "During the war, and in the period of reconstruction, we have heard and read much of eliminating the so-called 'Middleman,'" the editors wrote. "We are convinced, however, that no method has yet been developed that can more economically serve the consumer than the present triumvirate of manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer."

Feature articles included "What Does the Future Hold for the Independent Grocer?", "Look After Your Fruit and Vegetable Business," "What Should the Grocer Know About Turnover?" and "Attractive Displays that Sell Merchandise." There were plenty of cartoons to keep the content lighthearted, and a particularly progressive article explored "Women Clerks at Meat Counters."

In 1922, Progressive Grocer estimated there were 350,000 retail grocers throughout the country. The first issue was sent at no charge, "in the spirit of service," and the publisher promised to send it monthly if the reader so desired.

The magazine's mission was simple: to help its readers increase their business and profits. That mission remains intact today, albeit at a much different time in history for the supermarket industry.

More to Come

Our 90th anniversary festivities will continue throughout 2012, with decade-by-decade retrospectives illustrating how America's supermarkets — and the suppliers that serve them — have kept pace with the times. The monthly series will culminate in a special issue in late 2012, chronicling the evolving retail food industry, with a special focus on its most historically influential leaders.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Readers are invited to share memorabilia illustrating the significant role supermarkets have played, by sending an e-mail to [email protected]

A Decade of Innovation

Here's a recap of what was going on among a few of the major U.S. grocery brands during the Roaring Twenties. The information was found on company/brand websites.

Beech-Nut: Throughout the first two decades of the century, Beech-Nut Packing Co. manufactured a dizzying array of foodstuffs, including sliced meats, peanut butter, baked beans, jam, tomato sauce, coffee, mustard, biscuits, candy and gum. Many of the offerings, such as ginger ale, spaghetti and canned fish bait, had limited appeal and were quickly dropped, but peanut butter, tomato products, coffee, and candy had more enduring success. Beech-Nut Chewing Gum became the company's second major product breakthrough, in 1910.

Camay: In response to the growing popularity of perfumed healthy soaps, Procter & Gamble introduced Camay.

Coca-Cola: As the 1920s got underway, more than 1,000 Coca-Cola bottlers were operating in the United States. Six-bottle cartons caught on quickly after their introduction in 1923. A few years later, open-top metal coolers became the forerunners of automated vending machines.

Kellogg's cereals: Kellogg continued to expand into new markets, exporting cereal to England in the early 1920s and later building a plant in Sydney, Australia. Stateside, Kellogg introduced ready-to-eat cereals in individual servings for use in hospitals, hotels and railroad dining cars. The 1920s also brought new marketing innovations. A mail-in promotion made Kellogg's hometown of Battle Creek, Mich., a household name when millions of youngsters clipped and mailed in Kellogg's box tops for "Stuff-Yourself Nursery Rhyme Rag Dolls." Kellogg also established one of the first home economics departments in the food industry in 1923, the same year that Kellogg's Pep wheat flakes product was introduced. The famous Kellogg's Rice Krispies began talking to consumers in 1927.

Kraft Foods: In 1927, Edwin Perkins modified a soft drink syrup called Fruit Smack. He concentrated it into a powder, packaged it in envelopes and changed the name to Kool-Aid. In 1928, Kraft Cheese Co. acquired the Phenix Cheese Corp., maker of Philadelphia cream cheese, and changed its name to Kraft-Phenix Cheese Corp.