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The First Grocery Store in America

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Going to a grocery store is a common activity today but a freestanding grocery is actually a fairly recent development. The first grocery store in America opened on September 11, 1916. It was called Piggly Wiggly and this store paved the way for stores today.



History of Groceries

Of course, before this time, there were stores where people purchased food. Beginning in the early 14th century, a grocer was a person who sold dry goods such as sugar, tea, coffee, and spices. As canning increased the food supply, this trade expanded and more foods became available from grocers.

 

Grocer's shops in Detroit, circa 1922

Grocer’s shops in Detroit, circa 1922

 

These stores were varied depending on their area of the country but were often known as trading posts or general stores. Originally, the stores only dealt in “dry” goods while perishable items and meat had to be purchased at a farmer’s market or a butcher. Additionally, these older stores were not self-service. A customer would put together a list to a clerk who would then assemble the items and charge the customer.

Self-Service Model

The first self-service grocery store was opened by Clarence Saunders in Memphis, Tennessee. The reason why this is considered the first true grocery store is that it followed a new self-service model. Shoppers were able to browse through the store and pick exactly what they wanted. This model was attractive to both consumers and stores for a variety of reasons.

 

The original Piggly Wiggly Store in Memphis, Tennessee

The original Piggly Wiggly Store in Memphis, Tennessee

 

For the store owners, customers were more likely to purchase additional items or “impulse buys” as they are called today. Branding also developed with grocery stores as there was more competition to attract buyers attention. Stores could also cut down on labor costs since clerks were not needed to assemble shopper’s items.

For customers, the appeal was also seen quickly. While there was some inconvenience to having to browse through the aisles, customers could choose the produce and fresh products that they wanted instead of having it chosen for them. They also had the flexibility of choice that was not seen in the full-service model. Additionally, these stores carried meat, produce, and dry goods which allowed them to do their grocery shopping in one location.

The first grocery store was significantly different than the ones today. The selection would have been fairly limited as there was not the diversity in food choices or brands today. Early grocery stores were also fairly formal with employees in uniform and greater assistance navigating the grocery store.

Food Marketing

Before grocery stores, food marketing was a fairly limited market. The marketing of even one food product could be complicated and likely with limited success. Most consumers purchased flour but they would not have looked at the difference between a store or name brand. The development of more than one type of flour became a phenomenon after the grocery store model developed.

Advertisers know that people shop with their eyes and having customers choose their grocery items allows them to charge a higher price for certain items. For example, most stores carry several brands of the same type of all-purpose flour. By advertising as a superior flour and having more attractive packaging, customers are more likely to purchase a brand name flour than the generic option. Food marketing is a huge part of the marketing world today.



Success and Next Steps

Because of the move to a central grocery store, prices were lowered and the Piggly Wiggly was a successful model. After its success, other supermarkets were opened such as King Kullen in 1930 and Safeway and Kroger grocers adapting their current model. Not all of these stores exist through today but supermarkets were an American phenomenon that proved to be incredibly successful.

European markets began to see the appeal and developed their own grocery stores. While visiting the United States with Eisenhower, Queen Elizabeth even took the time to tour a grocery store. She was reported to have been amused by the stores but thought they were a great model.

Modern Grocery Trends

During World War II, the grocery store became an even more important part of society. Many of the small grocery stores had to close their door as their employees went to war. For the larger supermarkets who had fewer employees, losing a few people didn’t put the company out of business. Other developments such as refrigerators that became popular after the war made it possible for people to store larger amounts of food. The changes in society made the grocery store a staple in society.

In the early 2000s, megastores such as Walmart and Target wanted to corner the market and developed all-in-one models. These stores were designed to not only contain groceries but also be a place where customers could purchase home goods, clothes, and everything else they might need. They were large stores and most Walmarts today carry a grocery section. The model proved to be fairly successful although they have faced criticism for poor produce offerings and a limited selection. The modern grocery continued to exist although there has been a consolidation of stores due to this competition.

Another grocery phenomenon came with the rise of technology. As people began to shop online, there was an increased push for the ability to shop for groceries online as well. Many grocery stores are offering online grocery shopping in addition to their freestanding store. Some of the chains allow customers to place an order online and have it delivered to their house for either none fee or a small surcharge. There are also options to place an order and then pick it up already packaged.

 

Amazon Locker at Baltoro, 345 West 42nd st, Manhattan NYC

Amazon Locker at Baltoro, 345 West 42nd st, Manhattan NYC

 

The interesting phenomenon of the modern grocery store is that it seems to be moving back to the original model. Although the early shoppers would not have placed orders online, the move away from self-service is reverting to the original model.

Future Steps

This market is constantly changing and developing. From bare-bones stores like Aldi to completely online grocery shopping like Amazon, grocery shopping is going to see large changes in the future. Expect to see greater competition for consumers in the coming years.

October 27, 2017 |

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