By the time SN began publishing in 1952, the supermarket had largely evolved into a form not all that different from its current one.
Horse-drawn carts laden with fresh fruits and baked goods had already been driven off the scene by larger grocery stores that sold a little bit of everything. Barrels of molasses and sacks of flour had been replaced with packages more conducive to self-service.
The concept of self-service appeared in the early 1900s, and it forced changes in both packaging and pricing -- grocers began posting uniform prices, rather than charging different rates for different customers. Meanwhile, the switch from a credit-and-delivery system to a cash-and-carry business model became more widely accepted as more and more people owned cars and adopted the custom of picking up their own groceries.
In California, self-service was pioneered by the founders of the Alpha Beta supermarket chain, the Gerrard family, who placed items alphabetically around a self-service store in 1914. In the East, Clarence Saunders launched self-service in 1916 at a Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tenn.
Such self-service formats also established a blueprint for the price-oriented, multi-department supermarkets that gave birth to modern supermarket retailing.
Stores selling dry groceries could be found throughout the country as far back as the 1800s, but it wasn't until the 1920s and 1930s that the concept of the "combination store," or a grocery store offering fresh produce, meat and dry groceries all under one roof, began to gain steam.
National chains selling dry groceries, such as A&P, also were already well-established by the time the combination-store concept began to grip the food retailing industry. A&P, originally a tea-importing business, had built a national network of 16,000 stores in 1930 when one of its former employees, Michael J. Cullen, opened a discount-price supermarket in Jamaica, New York, that many view as being one of the earliest prototypes of the modern supermarket.
The King Kullen store carried what was then considered to be a vast selection of products -- more than 1,000 -- many of which were sold at cost in hopes of luring shoppers in to purchase additional items that were marked up as much as 20%.
Other supermarkets around the country that sprang up around the same time included Big Bear, with stores in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio; Canners Warehouse in Detroit; Alpha Beta in California; Dawson's Trading Post in Chicago; Miller's Super Public Market in Denver; and Albers Super Markets in Cincinnati.
Price became a major selling point for these concepts, which touted their low overhead costs and "wholesale-style" formats, with groceries stacked on tables and shelves in cavernous, bare-bones stores. Many of these stores sold their products at 8% to 15% below the prices offered by traditional grocers, according to a book called "Supermarkets -- 50 Years of Progress" published in 1980 by Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
Many of these early supermarkets were built inside buildings that had previously served some other purpose. Failed bank buildings were abundant in the years after the Depression, and other buildings, including former garages and roller rinks, also were well-suited to these cost-cutting entrepreneurs.
By the late 1930s, large grocery-store chains, which included Kroger, Safeway and others, in addition to A&P, began rolling out large, multi-department supermarkets of their own.