Retailing of Food

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RETAILING OF FOOD. In agricultural societies all over the world, food marketing took place in central marketplaces in towns and cities. In larger cities, specialized merchants operated temporary stalls and permanent warehouse/stores alongside farmers who brought produce and animals directly to market. The Greek agora is an example of such a marketplace. The ruins of Pompeii provide examples of merchant's streetfront stores.

Expanding industrialization in the late nineteenth century ushered in mass consumerism in the United States and Europe. New forms of food purveying transformed the structure of the food business, the nature of retail ownership, and the social relations of food shopping. Innovations in food shopping that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries spread throughout the world with varied significance and direction.

Victorian Food Halls, Public Markets, and Local Family-Owned Stores

Mass production created both new commodities and a new professional-managerial consumer class in the late nineteenth century. Grand emporia, called "department stores," developed in response to this new type of customer. Centrally located, these palaces of consumerism used elegant, monumental ambience to display commodities. Early department stores usually incorporated food halls in which high-end customers were introduced to new products at separate stations in sanitized settings. Samples and demonstrations of new products were offered.

At the same time, large public markets continued to purvey fresh produce and meat brought directly from the country to central markets where they were purchased by the working classes, servants to the middle classes, and the small-scale vendors of raw and cooked foods who served dispersed communities.

Corporate Chains and Supermarkets

During World War I and the interwar years, the inflation of food prices made the high cost of living a major political issue. In the 1920s and 1930s new forms of food stores were invented in the United States to rationalize costs. This occurred in a two-step process, with centralized chain stores followed by the new self-service supermarkets. The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) was the largest of the early chain stores. Expanding from a chain of tea stores to encompass all food products, A&P was concentrated mostly in the Northeast. Other pioneering chains were Safeway in the West and Krogers in the Midwest. Chains achieved economies of scale through buying in bulk and a higher volume of sales. A&P also relied on its own production of house brands to cut wholesale costs.

The first chains in the United States retained the same spatial/social organization as family-owned counterparts. Clerks still presented wares over the counter and helped make selections, gave product information, often bargained over price, and arranged for such services as credit and delivery. This changed with the advent of self-service marketing. Michael Cullen, an employee of Krogers, opened his first self-service King Kullen store in New York in 1930 when Kroger executives rejected his new concept. Recognizing that larger stores were necessary to achieve profitable sales volumes, self-service emerged as an adaptation to size. Cullen's stores were ten times larger in square footage than chain stores. As James Mayo reports (p. 117), the term "supermarket" came into use in the 1930s and was defined by a threshold sales volume, parking lots, and self-service.

In self-service stores, goods were displayed to allow the consumer to make autonomous choices based on fixed prices. Also referred to as "cash and carry" stores, they did not provide the conveniences, such as credit or delivery, that formerly bound merchant to customer. Instead they provided an often desirable anonymity and private decision-making. The grocery cart was developed in 1937 and expanded the possibilities for bulk shopping. Increasing automobile and refrigerator ownership enabled infrequent bulk shopping to replace frequent or daily shopping..

These enterprises were important sites in the development of a mass market of middle-class consumers. The United States, unlike Europe, lacked a history of aristocracy and strong class distinctions in taste. Media advertising used specials and brand imaging to shape consumer desire for standardized, reliable mass-produced foods and to foster trust in corporate chains.

In contrast, Europe retained clearly marked class distinctions in taste and consumption. An active food co-op movement was at the center of debates about food prices. Traditional wholesalers and their shopkeeper allies had considerable political clout. They promoted the benefits of artisan production over mass production in food processing. Independent grocers and wholesalers fought successfully for protectionist legislation to thwart chain-store development and the food co-op movement. According to Victoria de Grazia in her article, "Changing Consumption Regimes in Europe" (pp. 7174), this protest occurred particularly in Germany, France, Austria, and Italy, in contrast to Great Britain and Sweden.

PostWorld War II Global Trends

Supermarkets became the dominant sites for food shopping in the United States during the post-World War II era of abundance. As technology was fetishized to symbolize modernity, supermarket architecture and design became strikingly modern, emphasizing service by machines rather than people. Innovations in shelving, lighting, open refrigerator cases, and newly designed promotional displays highlighted the abundance of products and encouraged impulse shopping. Furthermore, as mass ownership of automobiles enabled the sprawl of suburban settlements, new stores in developing suburbs were less densely distributed and much larger in size, drawing customers from long distances.

In the postwar era in Europe, traditional state-protected food distribution was rapidly transformed. Self-service stores in Germany increased in number from 39 in 1951 to 17,132 in 1960 and 35,000 in 1965. At the same time in France, the "hyperstore" was invented, joining food with other consumer goods in even larger stores. Promodes, a provincial Normandy food wholesaler, merged with two rival family firms in the 1960s and within a decade developed a multinational retail network.

Another major French chain, Carrefour, opened its first North American hyperstore in Montreal in 1973, and by 1989, there were eighteen European-style hyperstores in the United States. Today many supermarket chains are truly global in ownership and in the commodities that are purveyed. In 1979, A&P itself was bought by Tengelmann, a German-owned multinational. At the same time, U.S. corporations such as Pathmark have created "superstores" that sell more than food.

Post-Industrial Reaction and Counterreaction

Today, many consumers see drawbacks in corporate food distribution. Centralized stocking practices are far removed from local customer needs as they rely more on corporate relations with food manufacturers and formulas for profit margins. In spite of the illusion of unlimited choice, variety in packaging and a parade of "new" products that are minor variations of existing ones, provide a limited veneer of novelty. Long-distance produce, cultivated for preservation and not for taste, is limited in its variety. Moreover, supermarket shelves are dominated by the products of a few large conglomerates whose power facilitates shelf preference and agreements to exclude competing products.

As corporations cut back on labor costs, workers are fewer and less knowledgeable. Meats once handled by skilled butchers are now packaged in the processing plant. As service declines, work is transferred to the customer. Huge stores mean a longer time spent walking down the aisles and waiting on checkout lines. Surveillance cameras limit one's privacy.

However, for certain urban populations, small stores remain central. Post-industrial capitalist elites who aestheticize food and leisurely eating, as those in the Italian-initiated "Slow Food" movement and their global counterparts, eschew mass-produced foods and long-distance produce. They are served by artisan bakeries, homemade-pasta shops, and local farmers markets. Increasing numbers of global immigrants are served by small shops that have ethnic foods and merchants who speak their languages. In addition, poor people in inner cities avoided by chains are dependent on small high-priced stores.

Seeking a broad customer base, corporate chains are continually responding to new demands. As people become more and more pressed for time, dispersed convenience stores allow quick purchases by people on the run. Prepared-food offerings and salad bars have expanded in supermarkets. Chains of upscale markets, such as the Whole Foods network in the United States, have developed to address high-end consumer desire for fresh quality produce and gourmet take-out foods. At the other extreme are chains of huge stores like Costco and Walmart, which sell mass quantities at near wholesale prices. Some chains try to resocialize the impersonal space of food stores by providing eating spaces, sponsoring singles nights for young professionals, and reaching out to local communities through promotions for local schools.

See also Farmers' Markets ; Food Politics: United States ; Marketing of Food .


De Grazia, Victoria. "Changing Consumption Regimes in Europe, 1930-1970: Comparative Perspectives on the Distribution Problem." In Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century, edited by Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, and Matthias Judt, pp. 5984. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Deutsch, Tracey. "Untangling Alliances: Social Tensions Surrounding Independent Grocery Stores and the Rise of Mass Retailing." In Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, edited by Warren Belasco and Phillip Scranton. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Goode, Judith. "Encounters over the Counter: Workers, Bosses, and Customers on a Changing Shopping Strip." In Newcomers in the Workplace: Immigrants and the Restructuring of the U.S. Economy, edited by Louise Lamphere, Alex Stepick, and Guillermo Grenier, pp. 251280. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Mayo, James M. "The American Grocery Store: The Business Evolution of an Architectural Space." Contributions to American History no. 150. Westbury, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Strasser, Susan, Charles McGovern, and Matthias Judt, eds. Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tedlow, Richard. New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Judith Goode

Food Halls in Japan

In Japan, where efficient public transit has forestalled reliance on cars, supermarkets are less developed, and small family-owned stores and chain-owned convenience stores near neighborhood public transit are heavily used. In addition, department stores located at major transit junctions devote much space to food halls. These food halls provide offerings ranging from perishable produce and sushi to a broad selection of cooked dishes representing traditional Japanese, other Asian, and European cuisines. Hawkers use traditional calls to attract customers to their stands, reproducing the ambience of the old urban marketplace for middle-class housewives and office workers within this modern, sanitized site of overconsumption.

Ethnic Market Succession

In Philadelphia, a multiblock area called the "Italian Market" served originally as a site where Italian immigrants could purchase fresh seasonal produce grown by Italian truck gardeners in southern New Jersey, as well as imported cheese and oil. Butchers slaughtered pigs in the fall and made sausages for Christmas Eve celebrations and the long winter. In spring, paschal lambs were available. Today, the area is still identified on tourist maps as the Italian Market. Yet aside from the remaining cheese and sausage purveyors and a few venerable restaurants, most vendors and consumers are Vietnamese who are now dominant in this area and have special ethnic food needs.

The Supermarket in Developing Countries

Supermarkets require private transportation for bulk purchases. In developing nations, chains such as Carulla in Colombia develop as soon as automobile suburbs emerge. Aspiring middle-class people without cars often pool their resources to use transportation such as unlicensed taxis and buses to take them shopping in these outlets.