Coming Full Circle: Revolutionary Ideas In Grocery Shopping
Grocery Store Interior, Washington DC, USA, Harris & Ewing, 1917. Source: (photo by: GHI/Universal History Archive via Getty Images)
Here’s a surprising fact – the current changes occurring in the grocery store industry are not the revolutionary and modern changes that we think they are. In fact, most of these present-day innovations harken back to the early days of the grocery story … the way our grandparents and great-grandparents bought their food. The mega-supermarket was a 1950s creation that was born out of desire for convenience. But consumers today are looking for a different food shopping experience that combines convenience with freshness and quality. To meet this demand, many grocery stores are not looking to the future, but looking to the past for ideas. Let’s look at how some of the revolutionary ideas in food shopping have come full circle, with a modern twist.
The first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis. Source: (time.com)
The Grocery Clerk and Your Grocery App
A hundred years ago, grocery stores had clerks, not cashiers. Customers would come into the store and hand their shipping list to the clerk. It was his job to go aisle to aisle to retrieve each item on the list and set it on the counter while the customer waited. It wasn’t until Clarence Saunders opened the first of his Piggly Wiggly stores in Memphis in 1916 that the idea of self-serve grocery shopping was introduced. Saunders offered his customers a basket so they could carry their purchases to the cashier who rang up their groceries. This was a revolutionary way to buy groceries and led to impulse purchases, product placement, and grocery store psychology. Today, we have returned to the idea of a store employee gathering your groceries from a list you provide, but now that list comes via a smartphone app. You can do your grocery shopping online then drive to the store to pick up your order without leaving your car and without walking up and down the grocery store aisles.
They're happy to have paper sacks to carry their groceries. Source: (magnoliabox.com)
BYOB – Bring Your Own Bag
The grocery stores of a century ago did not bag the customer's groceries for them in brown, paper sacks or plastic bags. The customer was responsible for bringing along a basket or a gunny sack to carry their purchases. With the rise of supermarkets in the 1950s, store owners pushed to offer as many conveniences as possible to attract customers. One such convenience was grocery sacks. The store provided bags so their customers didn’t have to remember to bring their own. Over time, consumers got so accustomed to this that, for decades, hardly anyone brought their own bags to the grocery store. But as our awareness of pollution, limited natural resources, and unnecessary waste increased, bringing your own bags became the responsible thing to do.
Meat purchases could be stored in the grocery stores meat locker. Source: (elledecor.com)
Remember Meat Lockers?
Once upon a time, the average homeowner couldn’t afford to have their own freezer to store meat, vegetables, and other grocery items. In the 1940s and 1950s, small-town grocery stores offered meat locker services to their customers. For a nominal fee, a family could rent space in the grocery store’s walk-in freezer. This allowed them to take advantage of sales and purchase meat in bulk. Refrigeration technology advanced in the 1940s and 1950s and the cost of an individual freezer decreased enough that, by the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, typical families could buy their own freezer, making meat lockers obsolete. Today, however, meat lockers are making a comeback. The idea of renting space in a meat locker appeals to apartment dwellers and people who are opting for a minimalist lifestyle. Meat locker businesses are gaining in popularity, especially in cities.
A 1945 bakery. Source: (historicindianapolis.com)
The Return of Specialty Stores
When our grandparents and great-grandparents did their grocery shopping, it involved visits to several different stores. The grocery store often just carried dry goods or canned goods. To get fresh fruits and vegetables, one needed to stop at the green grocer’s store. The local butcher shop carried meat and the bakery carried bread. With the demand for convenience, supermarkets of the 1950s brought all of these different specialty shops together under one roof – a one-stop shopping experience. Fast forward to present day and you will find that specialty shops are making a comeback. Customers are willing to sacrifice convenience for quality. They are attracted to the better quality and selection at specialty shops, as well as the expertise of the shop owner. Customers also feel good that they are supporting locally owned small businesses instead of spending their money at chain stores.
Purchasing groceries out of a barrel in New York City. Source: (gusspickles.com)
Scooping Food out of a Barrel
The grocery stores of the past displayed many of their products in barrels and the store clerks scooped out the quantity the customer requested. Dry beans, pickles, cod, crackers, pasta, flour, sugar, and coffee were all stored in barrels and sold by the weight. The clerks would measure out the right amount and package it up for the buyer. When supermarkets became all the rage, customers preferred pre-packaged goods. The barrel method of grocery shopping was old-fashioned and out of date. Enter Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other modern grocery stores. These stores have brought back the barrels and allow customers to scoop out as much or as little of an item as they want. Modern grocery shoppers love the control that they have over how much they purchase.
Supporting the local grocery store. Source: (allposters.com)
Return to the Old Days
Today’s grocery shopping experience is evolving, but in many cases, it is evolving backward. The American buying public is realizing that the way our grandparents and great-grandparents shopped for food led to better quality foods, greater support for the community, and stronger relationships with business owners. Grocery shopping is coming full circle.