There's no topic for a news article or editorial that's more likely to spark a flurry of telephone calls, letters and e-mails than one about how the net sales volume of independents is declining.
Usually a host of messages arrives to the effect that it's not that independents are in decline, but that the industry's definition of what constitutes an independent is faulty. For many years, the industry has defined an independent as a grouping of fewer than 11 stores and store groupings of 11 or more as a chain.
Two retorts are generally made about that: One is that independents are really store groups -- regardless of number -- that are privately held, entrepreneurial in management and wholesaler supplied. Seen that way, many retail organizations that are really independents exceed the store-count cutoff and become classified as chains if they experience even modest growth. The other response is a question, "Who came up with this 11-store business anyway?"
That's a good question and one that seemed to elude precise answer. But it turns out the answer has been slumbering on my desk for quite a while in the pages of a book called "How to Sell the Supermarkets" by Julian H. Handler, SN's founding editor. The copy I have is the second edition dated 1959, but it was originally written in 1956. By the way, SN was founded in 1952.
Here's the book's answer about the 11-store cutoff mystery. "The Department of Commerce defines a 'chain' as a retail organization having four or more stores. But in reporting store sales, government tabulations also include sales of 'Group 11 stores' which refers to those in organizations having 11 or more stores."
So what happened is that the food industry attached its definition to the upper bracket of government reports. Notice that the lower bracket considered an independent to be a group of less than four stores, so it could have been worse.
Meanwhile, in the how-things-change department, there's a listing of the Top 10 chains in the same book, together with a listing of headquarters cities.
Surprisingly, several names of the Top 10 list of nearly 40 years ago remain at least familiar and two remain in the headquarters city they then occupied. Four would be on today's Top 10 list.
The list is topped by "the mammoth Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., with more than 4,000 markets." A&P, in New York City, had sales of more than $5 billion and a net profit of $53 million, the book reported. (Strange to see, A&P's top line is now little more than twice that and its net about $10 million more.)
Other chains comprising the list were Safeway, Oakland, Calif.; Kroger, Cincinnati; American Stores, Philadelphia; National Tea, Chicago; Food Fair, Philadelphia; Winn-Dixie, Jacksonville, Fla.; First National, Somerville, Mass; Colonial, Atlanta; and Grand Union, East Paterson, N.J.
It's interesting to speculate about whether any of these names -- or names on a current Top 10 list, for that matter -- would be familiar 40 years hence, or how we'll define a chain by then.