Sunday, May 03, 2009

The invention of the supermarket

An interesting story in Forbes on the founding of King Kullen supermarkets in 1930 and its effect on how we live. They describe the way people bought groceries before self-service stores were invented, with a clerk picking out the individual items customers wanted (with few or no brand choices).

The process was erratic, labor intensive and costly. In 1930, Americans spent 21% of their disposable income on groceries. By 1940, that percentage dropped to 16%. Today, that figure is less than 6%--thanks to innovations in food distribution, mass merchandising and price competition that began in the 1930s.

"Supermarkets made it possible to achieve economies of scale at a lower cost to consumers," says Leslie G. Sarasin, chief executive of the Food Marketing Institute. "Americans were able to spend more of their disposable income on cars, education, clothing. They effectively created America's middle class."

A sidelight not mentioned in the story is that supermarkets spread so fast and destroyed the existing small retailers so quickly that only six years later, in 1936, congress felt it necessary to try to save the small retailers by passing the Robinson-Patman Act. Didn't work, did it?

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