Happy Birthday, Supermarket!

WASHINGTON -- Seventy-five years ago today, the first supermarket made its debut in America. The store, a King Kullen in Queens, N.Y., was comparable to today's no-frills warehouse outlets.

Other companies pioneering the supermarket concept in 1930 were Ralphs Grocery Company in California, the Texas-based Weingarten’s Big Food Markets, and Henke & Pillot, which was purchased by The Kroger Co. in 1956, according to the Food Marketing Institute in Washington.

Key to the early success of the supermarket were the shopping cart, introduced in 1937; the automobile, free parking lots, and mechanical refrigerators in the home and store.

Over the past 75 years, FMI notes, the supermarket helped America:

-- Endure the Great Depression: The format emerged while thed nation was grappling with the Great Depression, and an impoverished public welcomed the unprecedented low prices, variety, and opportunity to select products directly from shelves.

-- Create the middle class: The supermarket’s low prices freed up substantial funds for families to spend on cars, homes, education, and other needs and amenities, especially as the industry proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s. On the supermarket's silver anniversary, President Kennedy said that the supermarket’s low-cost mass marketing techniques "have enabled a higher standard of living and have contributed importantly to our economic growth."

-- Help end the Cold War: Between 1958 and 1988, some 50,000 Soviet citizens traveled to the U.S., most touring American supermarkets while there. The supermarket showcased how a free-market economy could deliver abundant, affordable food, and thus became a metaphor for what capitalism could do, and Communism could not. In his autobiography, Boris Yeltsin gave this account of his 1989 visit to a supermarket in Houston: "When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands, of cans, cartons, and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people. That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it."

-- Lower food costs: The cost of food today is nearly 6 percent of disposable U.S. family income -- the lowest of any country in the world -- and down from 21 percent in 1930 and 50 percent in the 19th century.

-- Enjoy abundant variety: The corner grocery store of the 1920s carried about 700 items, most sold in bulk, and consumers had to shop elsewhere for meat, produce, baked goods, dairy products, and other items. The supermarket brought all these products under one roof. The number of products carried climbed to 6,000 by 196, to 14,000 by 1980, and to more than 30,000 today.

-- Experience one-stop convenience: Even the first stores featured health and beauty care items, electrical supplies, auto accessories, and lunch counters.

-- Pioneer new technologies: Supermarkets have led implementation of technologies designed to improve efficiency and customer service, most notably the bar code — now scanned more than 5 billion times a day worldwide.

-- Serve communities: American supermarkets serve their communities with compassion, supporting food banks, schools, and other vital institutions. In the times of greatest need, such as the hurricanes that swept Florida in 2004 and the 9/11 terrorism disasters, supermarkets are among the first businesses to reopen, dispensing water, medical supplies, batteries, and other essentials.
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