Michael Cullen called his store "the World's Greatest Price Wrecker," which certainly resonated with Depression-era shoppers.
1930: King Kullen, America’s First Supermarket, Debuts
On Aug. 4, 1930, Michael Cullen opened the doors to America’s first supermarket, King Kullen, in a large vacant garage in Jamaica, in the New York City borough of Queens. The Smithsonian Institute recognizes this store as America’s first supermarket, since it was “the first to fulfill all five criteria that define the modern supermarket: separate departments, self-service, discount pricing, chain marketing and volume dealing.”
Cullen, who had joined A&P as a clerk in 1902, spent years dreaming of his idea for a supermarket and tried to persuade grocery executives of the concept’s potential, but his words apparently fell on deaf ears.
Once he had the chance to make his dream a reality, he promoted his store with newspaper ads and circulars that billed King Kullen as “the World’s Greatest Price Wrecker.” According to the company, curious customers drove from 100 miles away to see what the new store was all about and to save money on groceries.
Indeed, the low-price proposition was one of the biggest draws of Cullen’s store, particularly since it debuted during the Depression. By 1936, there were 17 King Kullen locations in New York City and on Long Island, and they were bringing in about $6 million a year in sales.
Unfortunately, Cullen died at the young age of 52, but his wife and children carried on the business, which continues today. In fact, just last month, King Kullen appointed Michael Cullen’s grandson, James Cullen Jr., chairman of the company.
1940s: A&P is Target of Anti-Chain Movement
By 1930, the great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., better known as A&P, had become the country’s largest retailer. Even though the company was slow to embrace the supermarket concept as envisioned by Michael Cullen, it ended up adopting the self-service idea and grew its store base substantially.
Yet with this great growth came a backlash from the country’s anti-chain movement. Consequently, in the early 1940s, A&P became embroiled in an antitrust lawsuit, in which its owners, brothers John Hartford and George Hartford Jr., were sued by the United States for unfair competition against independents, exaction of allowances by headquarters, and abuse of advertising allowances, among other charges. The owners lost the case and were fined. In 1949, the U.S. attorney general filed a new lawsuit calling for the breakup of the company. In response, A&P conducted a major PR campaign to save its image (the owners were even featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1950), and its efforts finally pressured the government to end the case in 1953.
The company began to decline during the 1950s as it failed to keep up with competitors that were building larger supermarkets with more modern features, but its strong fight helped promote the principle that there’s room for both big chains and independent grocers in the U.S. retailing landscape.
1951: Albertsons Opens Superstore Featuring Drugs
At 60,000 square feet, Albertsons’ new “superstore” of 1951 was the first of a few experimental combination food-and-drug stores to be built during the decade. This was during a period that founder Joe Albertson was beginning to expand operations beyond the company’s home state of Idaho. In 1957, the company purchased Sugarhouse Drug, in Salt Lake City, making a further investment in the idea that food and drugs together offer more convenience for shoppers.
By the following decade, more supermarket operators were catching on to the concept of combination stores. In 1961, Jewel Tea acquired Osco Drug, and in 1962, Giant Food of Landover, Md., built its first combination food store and pharmacy. Later in the 1960s, Acme Markets of Philadelphia acquired a 46-store Pennsylvania drug store chain, and Albertsons entered into a partnership with Skaggs Drug Centers Inc. to open more combination food-and-drug stores.
1961: First National Purchases Safeway’s N.Y. Division in Largest Acquisition to Date
Making history as the industry’s largest single acquisition to date, northeastern chain First National Stores acquired the New York division of Safeway Stores Inc., which included 164 stores. At the time, Safeway was the second-largest grocery store chain in the nation, so the deal catapulted First National to eighth place in the national ranking of grocery chains. Of course, this was the first of many big acquisitions to come later in the century.
First National, which later used the acronym “Finast,” was purchased by Pick-N-Pay Supermarkets of Ohio in 1978, and was later acquired by Ahold in 1998.