Archive for Saturday, August 17, 1991


August 17, 1991


From public markets to Hypermarts, grocery stores in America have come a long way in the past century.

And James Mayo, a Kansas University professor of architecture, is in the process of writing a grocery history in a book he hopes to be out by 1994.

"It's a particular kind of history," Mayo said, whose book will span 350 years, from the public markets of the 1600s to today's supermarkets and convenience stores.

Mayo says he's interested in how architectural space was used by those in the food-selling business to reshape and redefine the industry.

"I'm interested in the political economy surrounding it. Architectural space is big money," he said. "It's about the transformation of space through the varied business eras we have experienced."

Mayo begins his history in 1634, explaining how communities developed public markets.

"THEY WERE first located in streets because they didn't have to buy the property," he said. "Markets could be 30 feet wide and a half a mile long."

"Actually,'' he said, ``we've replicated in the 20th century what we did in the 19th because today's supermarket is the public market. And yesterday's `mom and pop' is today's Kwik Trip."

Mayo said his book also will discuss the emergence of country stores.

The small-business person flourished in the era of the public market, the small stores and the country stores, he said.

But the mass distribution system brought the rise of the chain stores, which put smaller grocers and butchers out of business, he said.

"It was class warfare, capitalist against capitalist," he said. "This chain-store movement was the death knell to the public markets and the country store."

Independent grocers fought the chain stores by organizing themselves and borrowing cost-cutting ideas, such as wholesale buying, used by the chains, he said.

Some independents also began competing with chains by selling not only produce, but canned goods and meats, he said.

IN THE EARLY 1930s, a milestone occurred when Michael Cullen formed King Cullen supermarkets, which later became Big Bear supermarkets.

The supermarket concept was designed to meet the needs of those in the Depression era, who wanted warehouse-style groceries without many frills.

"This really began to penetrate into corporate chains like A&P;," Mayo said. A&P; had more than 15,000 grocery stores in the 1930s, but supermarket competition dropped that number to about 4,000 by the 1940s, he said.

He said the success behind the supermarket was, in part, "one-stop shopping."

"So the supermarket played a big role, as a design, of transforming business," he said. "This was a case of design reshaping the business."

A supermarket building boom hit after World War II.

"There was tremendous market growth, whether they were affiliated independents or corporate chains, they couldn't build supermarkets fast enough nor make them large enough," he said. "They kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

Although the 1950s saw a tremendous growth in supermarkets, growth began to slow during the 1960s.

"YOU CAN only build so many supermarkets in suburbia until the competition gets so stiff that it's uneconomical to put more in," he said.

Since they couldn't expand, the corporate chains began to buy out other chains, he said.

"Up until the '60s, the design was always as an efficient machine," he said. "That is, `How can we get more retail space? How can we get the customer to buy more?'"

But in the 1960s, looking for new ways to draw customers, some supermarkets began trying different architectural styles, he said.

"You get the New Orleans French Quarter supermarket. Or you get sort of a barn-type grocery store. Circular grocery stores. Hexagons. Floor plans with X-shapes," he said.

Stores also took on particular themes such as A&P;'s colonial format and some supermarkets tried to blend into neighborhood architectural styles, he said.

The 1970s brought a throwback to the 1930s warehouse markets, such as Food 4 Less, he said.

"AND THERE were other things that arose, such as the convenience stores," he said. "We got cooperatives. We had superstores. We had the combined discount stores. . . . Then we had the warehouse clubs, then the Hypermart. And then highly specialized food shops."

Overall, he said he hoped his book would show how the history of grocery-selling space is an example of the struggle between small business and large corporations.

"There's two sides of looking at this, evolutionary and revolutionary," he said. "It brought about a new way of business and enterprise. But it was devastating to many small-business people. Part of what I'm writing about is from the political left, because this is really class warfare."

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