As Americans began seeking greener pastures in the suburbs, so too did supermarket chains.
The 1950s ushered in a new American Dream for many. In the post-World War II economy, people aspired to live better and in larger, more spacious dwellings, with luxuries such as wall-to-wall carpeting and state-of-the-art refrigerators, freezers, mixers and toasters.
This new ideal fit perfectly with the supermarket and its ample parking, and consequently, many grocery companies prospered by building new, larger stores with more self-service sections, air conditioning and sleek new equipment.
In 1950, supermarkets accounted for 35 percent of food sales; by 1960, these stores sold 70 percent of food for home consumption. During the decade, the number of stores more than doubled — from 14,000 in 1950 to 33,000 in 1960.
Several factors played into the supermarket's success. For starters, the population was literally "booming." By 1950, the baby boom was well underway, and throughout the decade, the U.S. population would climb 19 percent — boasting 180 million people by 1960.
Supermarket Sales in 1953
Here's a glimpse at the annual sales at major U.S. grocery chains, as reported by Progressive Grocer.
Suburban housing developments were cropping up around major cities to accommodate the influx. As the federal interstate highway system was developed and auto registrations climbed, people could more easily travel to shop.
Also during the decade, homes with television increased from 4 million to 46 million, giving way to more powerful advertising from national brands.
Last but not least, food production was rapidly developing, thanks to better seeds, fertilizers and equipment.
During the '50s, retailers were focused on constructing stores quickly and efficiently, so simple and functional designs reigned. Many chose to close older stores and replace them with modern ones. They had to factor in up-to-date features such as electrical systems, specialized lighting and larger equipment to showcase a growing number of perishable products.
Such expansion required hefty capital and upfront investment. As a result, some retailers, such as A$P, were more hesitant to expand at such a rapid-fire pace.
A number of growing chains looked to acquisitions for growth. For instance, Pennsylvania's Food Fair (which later became known as Pantry Pride) in 1958 purchased Setzer's Supermarkets, a 40-store chain in the Jacksonville, Fla., area. Winn $ Lovett, a chain in the Southeast that was steadily growing via acquisitions, changed its name to Winn-Dixie in 1955, after purchasing the 117-store Dixie Home chain.
Others ventured into brand-new markets. Albertson's went public in 1959, and with that capital began expanding aggressively. During the decade, the company entered Washington, Utah, Oregon and Montana.
Also in 1959, Safeway opened its first store in the new state of Alaska, being the first major food retailer to enter that market. The grocer was also making a major push into the Southern California market. And Stater Bros., a relative newcomer to California, was operating 23 locations by the end of the decade.
Regional chains began building warehouses to help supply their stores. Florida's Publix built a 125,000-square-foot warehouse and headquarters complex in 1951.
Quincy, Mass.-based Stop $ Shop built a central bakery, perishable goods distribution warehouse and grocery distribution center, all in Massachusetts, around the same time. The company also quickly established itself in Rhode Island and Connecticut, and by the end of the 1950s, it was nearing $200 million in sales.
Wholesalers Gain Importance
The food distribution network was being challenged in new ways, as the industry tried its best to keep up with demand. Wholesalers and retailers had to work together in new, creative ways to solve this "good problem."
The more visionary independent grocers saw the need to join together with strong wholesalers to remain a competitive force, as more chains took over the retail landscape. Wholesalers helped them bargain for lower prices, as well as aiding with store construction and financing, central accounting and advertising.
Companies such as Fleming, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Winston and Newell, and Wakefern, to name a few, came to the aid of family-owned grocers in different regions of the country. By 1952, Winston and Newell was serving more than 560 stores in six states; in 1954, the company changed its name to Supervalu, closely aligning the company with its successful retailers. During the following year, the company strengthened its Midwest presence by acquiring 12 regional food wholesalers, primarily in the Midwest, Southeast and Northwest.
Not surprisingly, supermarket competition heated up. Consumers now had more choices to shop. 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."
Trading stamps became a method by which retailers attempted to attract more customers. Not having stamps became a promotion theme as well.
By 1962, trading stamps had peaked, with estimated sales of $671 million.
Amid all of the growth and advancement of the decade, retailers had at least one new concern on their radars: organized labor. "Organized workers, used to frequent raises since the war, are becoming restless," declared an editorial in a 1955 issue of PG. "For almost two years, the gains and additions to their 'fringe benefits' have been small."
Also of major concern in the early '50s was high inflation, which customers often blamed on supermarkets. As a result, some retailers displayed letters they had sent to President Truman, promising, "We will comply with the government's request to hold the price line."
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 Nifty Change
The 1950s saw a slew of advancements in product innovation, marketing and even technology. Here are a few highlights:
- Plastic film and wrapping machines came onto the scene, making pre-packaged fruits and vegetables possible. While this increased grocers' labor costs, the convenience appealed to consumers and helped boost sales.
- The meat department became a standard section at supermarkets. Dairy sections were rapidly moving to self-service, and some grocers dabbled in housewares and larger nonfood sections.
- By 1955, Progressive Grocer sported a new tagline: "the magazine of super markets and superettes." (Superettes were defined as "stores that are mostly self-service and handle a complete line of merchandise.")
- The pace of new product introductions steadily increased, and PG noted that the greatest activity was in convenience foods characterized by "built-in maid and chef service." Frozen foods now accounted for nearly 4 percent of supermarket sales.
- The round, turntable checkout counter, an innovation of the '50s, was designed to help speed up a part of the supermarket that had become an irritation for customers.
- Manufacturers and retailers rolled out in-store promotions that appealed to kids. Some retailers built "kiddie corrals" (babysitting services for moms) complete with TV and games. In addition, some grocers featured combo stroller-shopping carts.
- West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee opened its data-processing department (now called the information technology department) in 1954, which marked the beginning of the increasing importance of new technology.
- In 1953, Compton, Calif.-based Ralphs, an early convert to computer technology, debuted an electronic store-billing system at its new warehouse in Glendale, Calif.