A pioneer in the supermarket industry who built one of its largest chains, Joseph Albertson epitomized the customer-oriented approach to food retailing.
From the headquarters in Boise, Idaho, where he founded the chain that bears his name in 1939, Albertson focused relentlessly on pleasing his shoppers. His approach earned him a fortune that he eagerly gave back to the community with the same enthusiasm that he rolled out new innovations in food retailing.
“Joe's philosophy was, whatever you do, take care of the customer, because she's the one who is going to make us successful,” Bob Miller, the current chairman and chief executive officer of Albertsons LLC, told SN. “His motto was, ‘You've got to give the customer the merchandise they want, at a price they can afford, complete with lots of tender, loving care.’”
Miller, who worked for three years under Albertson at the predecessor company, then known as Albertson's, recalled him as a warm, people-oriented leader with a hearty helping of old-school business sense.
Albertson also had a strong interest in providing new and interesting services that distinguished his stores and made the experience more exciting for his shoppers, Miller recalled.
That aspect of his management style was reflected in the very first location. Although his first outlet measured only 10,000 square feet, as the largest grocery store in Boise at the time it foreshadowed the broad selection of services that would come to define the modern supermarket.
“To compete, we offered a whole list of firsts for the store,” Albertson told SN in a 1975 interview. “The first scratch bakery in the area, the first magazine rack, the first hot roasted nut machine, an automatic doughnut machine and a popcorn machine. And we also made our own ice cream.”
The magazine rack in that store is considered to be one of the first ever placed in a supermarket. The company would remain on the cutting edge of food retailing for decades, becoming one of the early adopters of the food-and-drug combo format and one of the pioneers of locating large stores in suburban shopping centers.
“He was ahead of his time, and he was always asking about new things,” recalled Miller, who noted that Albertson always referred to customers as “her.”
Albertson often asked his team, “What are you doing new and exciting for her?” Miller said.
Albertson's early encounters with aggressive price competition when he opened his first store provided a blueprint for modern-day operators.
“The competition was hell-bent on seeing we didn't get started, and the result was a really severe price war,” Albertson told SN in the 1975 interview. “Although it was tough for us, we went right with them and worked the hell out of the ice cream, the bakery and the meat and produce departments.”
Before opening his own store, Albertson had worked for Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway for 12 years, helping that chain expand in Kansas. It was there that he began to define his customer-focused philosophy.
In 1939 he finally got to put his retailing philosophies to the test and go into business for himself, pooling his own $5,000 in savings with a $7,500 loan from his wife's aunt, and investments from former Safeway executive L.S. Skaggs and another partner, Tom Cuthbert.
They netted a profit of $9,711 in their first year, and quickly opened two more locations in the Idaho towns of Nampa and Caldwell. By the end of 1951 the chain had 17 locations, and it continued to expand with both grocery stores and a handful of drug stores through the 1950s. It launched an initial public offering in 1959.
The chain continued to expand, and was the nation's sixth-largest food-and-drug retailer, operating 651 locations, when Albertson died in 1993 at age 86. Although Albertson retired as chairman in 1976, he remained active as a director until he died, reports said. After a merger with American Stores in the late 1990s, the company was split apart in 2006, with Minneapolis-based Supervalu buying most of the stores and private equity firms buying the rest to form Albertsons LLC, which remains based in Boise.
Albertson was born in Yukon, Okla., in 1906, but his family three years later moved to Idaho, where Albertson spent the rest of his childhood. He studied business for two years at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, and began working for Safeway while attending college.
According to the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which Albertson and his wife formed in 1966, Albertson early on developed a reputation for generosity and community involvement. During World War II, the chain promoted war bonds and sponsored drives to collect scrap materials needed for the war effort.
While Joseph and Kathryn Albertson donated to a variety of causes through the years, their focus eventually turned to supporting education. Their foundation has given more than $500 million to Idaho communities and education systems.
“Kathryn and Joe both appreciated what they accomplished, but it didn't define them,” Chris Latter, a spokeswoman for the foundation, told SN. “They were great people, who gave, without asking for anything in return — often not even letting people know where the gifts came from.”
“There were a lot of people who came into his office asking him for money,” Miller recalled, “and I don't think he ever said ‘no’ to any of them. He just wanted to help everybody he could, but he didn't want to take any of the credit for it.”
Miller also described Albertson as a determined, focused individual, who could be stubborn at times.
He said he remembers Albertson closing the door of his office to smoke cigarettes, despite having a non-smoking building.
“He'd call me in and say, ‘Nobody had better smoke in this building but me, but I am allowed to smoke here because I started this goddamned company.’”
Reports said that Albertsons cherished running his inaugural store in Boise, and sought to maintain that same level of customer service as the chain grew.
“One of the most pleasurable experiences of my life,” Albertson told SN in 1975, “was running that first store, being there all the time and knowing every customer by name. I really enjoyed learning their likes and dislikes, their wants and needs. I enjoyed doing business with them and rendering service to them.”