How Supermarkets Changed Us

vintage illustration Supermarket couple 1949


“Now That You’re Gone

Never known such unhappiness

Never thought it would be like this

What will I do now that you’re gone?”


Like so many long term relationships, we took supermarkets for granted.

It was bound to happen. We got too comfortable. They were just always there.

Dependable. Predictable.

Never exciting, often dowdy but always reliable. Not sexy like the tiny specialty shops that seduce us with their hand-crafted artisanal goodies sold to us by earnest flannel-clad clerks sporting beards and man buns rhapsodizing about their unique, locally sourced items.

But secretly we still loved those supermarkets for their predictability. We could count on them.

Except now we can’t.

We took for granted not only the variety of foods and household items supermarkets availed us of, but also the convenience and the speed with which these goods were available for consumption.

It is only now when we are urged to stay away from them that we are realizing just how important our supermarkets are to us.

Delivery just doesn’t, well, deliver on its promise. Fresh Direct is hopelessly backlogged, Instacart is too fickle, and Amazon, oh Amazon, you are sorely out of stock of the very thing I desire.

Oh how I long for my old supermarket back.


Supermarkets are so tightly woven into the fabric of our daily lives that it had become practically impossible to imagine the condition of being without them. They are so ubiquitous they have become unremarkable.

Yet remarkable they are.

The evolution of the American supermarket irrevocably and dramatically altered not only the way Americans bought food but how we cooked, shopped, and ate.

Now would be a good time to look back at the evolution of that most American of institutions.


Vintage Ad Piggly Wiggly

Like all great American innovations, it began with the impetus for freedom.

The first step on the way to the modern supermarket was the innovation of a Self-Service store.  That honor goes to a store with the improbable name Piggly Wiggly, opened in 1916 in Memphis Tennessee by Clarence Saunders.

It was radical.

“ You can take what you please from the shelves- examine it at leisure,”  Piggly Wiggly explained in their ad. “Reach your own decisions. No clerks to wait for- no hurry.”

What Saunders noticed was how much time and money was wasted having clerks wait on each customer individually, filling the order and then delivering the items to their homes.

It was downright revolutionary and unlike any store at the time.

Eary Piggly Wiggly Self Service Store 1918

A Piggly Wiggly store exhibits state of the art merchandising for food c.1918. The store was arranged so that customers had to walk through every aisle before reaching the check out counter.

Instead of the usual shopping experience asking clerks to get each item, astonished shoppers were handed baskets ( shopping carts were a few decades away)  in which they placed their own handpicked choices as they meandered through the store’s four aisles selecting easy to reach goods all displayed with clearly marked hanging price tags.

There were no clerks to persuade them and women made their own decisions as they shopped. The tickled customers paid at a check out lane ( cash only no credit) and exited through a turnstile.

It was a novel idea and the ladies loved it.

Grocery Stores

Turn of the century grocery store

Prior to this, grocery shopping meant going to a counter at a store and being waited on by a clerk who filled their orders.

The store itself was quite small, and you were fenced off from the shelves by counters. Not only did you have to wait for an available clerk to help you with your order, but you had to know exactly what you wanted from a carefully prepared list. Because much of the merchandise was out of the customers reach, impulse buying was limited. Instead of putting groceries into your own cart, you’d ask the shopkeeper to get them for you, and using a long pole with a mechanical hand to reach the floor to ceiling shelves, he would retrieve your item.

Most kitchen staples were sold in bulk, without brand names. A retailer usually carried one kind of flour, sugar butter, etc. Customers trusted their grocer to choose their goods for them. Credit and delivery services were part of the experience.

Grocery store

This small grocery store shows unusual diversity by selling fruits and vegetables

During the early decades of the 20th century, there were a few major grocery chains, the Krogers, Safeway and A&P. But these were all fully clerked with credit and delivery. In 1912 A&P experimented and opened what they called “Economy Stores.”  Clerks remained but credit and delivery disappeared.

Grocery stores were just that – grocery-only stores. No meat, no produce, no baked goods, and no non-food like paper products.

Until the appearance of the combination store after the 1920’s, shoppers purchased all of their meat, fresh produce, and groceries in separate stores. A housewife would have made a half a dozen stops- at the butcher’s, the bakers the fish makers, the fruit and vegetable grocers to complete all her shopping. It was time-consuming.

And a chore.

Through the turnstile to the land of adventure.”

Piggly Wiggly store

Piggly Wiggly, on the contrary, promised the housewife,  “Shopping was an adventure, not a chore.”

Saunders’s innovation was to admit customers through a turnstile dramatically bringing them into this “land of adventure” and then channel them around the store through a maze of well-stocked aisles past the merchandise. This system forced shoppers to pass enticing displays of food they had not considered buying before entering the store. He redesigned shopping by methodically arranging things in order to appeal to how customers shopped  putting impulse items like candy at the checkout.

The maze of aisles self-service system led to that great American innovation- impulse buying.

Cheap and convenient,  Piggly Wiggly was a great success and by the 1920s there were more than a thousand of them in 800 cities. Other chains like  A&P Kroger and Safeway followed in the self-service style.

Give The Lady the freedom to Choose

Vintage ad Piggly Wiggly

The timing of all this was perfect. The post-WWI woman and self-service went hand in hand.

The genius of Piggly Wiggly was it tapped into the new American woman. The newly emancipated lady had just gotten the right to vote and could apply her newly won freedom of choice to her shopping as well. She was a gal on the go who didn’t have time to waste food shopping all day. A Piggly Wiggly ad explains:

The woman of yesterday probably couldn’t have done it at all.

For the woman of today, it is both pleasant and easy. Her new wide knowledge of real value,her new ability to decide for herself, is one of the wonders of the world we live in.

Within a few years she has made this special method of household buying a nationwide vogue

Vintage ad Piggly Wiggly

The new post-war woman was a modern woman who wanted to make decisions for herself. She could now drive where she wanted and could manage the household with scientific efficiency

She was no old fashioned kind of gal who would  be restrained by a counter at a grocery aisle

“Mother steps out- in those words a great magazine has pictured the woman of today, self-reliant as never before sweeping aside old barriers, winning new freedoms,” reads the copy in a Piggly Wiggly ad.

When she shops for food she wants to be free to choose for herself. Free to make hew own knowledge count in giving her family more tempting food at  lower cost.

By the mid-1920s this modern housewife didn’t need anyone to tell her what to buy and what to consume

Or did she?

Now that the modern woman had to rely on her own judgment for choosing products it was would be up the corporate food manufacturers to assure her of their quality and her wisdom in selecting their product.

Why depend on the advice and persuasion of a store clerk when she could wander the aisles herself and choose freely,  informed by the many wise corporate food manufacturers at m’ladys service.

Now the products had to do the tempting.


Next:  Packaging spreads the way for supermarkets

Copyright (©) 2020 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved






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