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History Lesson: Grocery Shopping

June 22, 2012

In the beginning man was a hunter gatherer and then learned to save the seeds and put them in the ground, and so man became a farmer. And instead of wandering to forage, society could settle in one place.  People produced their own food and bartering and trading began. My wheat crop did okay and your zucchini took off like crazy (some things never have changed) and so we worked out an exchange. And you heard from your cousin in the next village that no one’s zucchini crop did well there so you got your cart and walked over there to sell yours (still producing and your neighbors are now running inside when they see you coming). You wanted to get home so left the produce with your cousin, who then traded them to his neighbors, and the grocer/middle man was born.

As towns and cities grew, farmers would bring their products in on market day. A green grocer would buy bulk for his shop, which provided access to fruits and veggies during the week until the next market day. There were shops with live animals and a willing butcher. The baker was down the street, usually one in each neighborhood cluster. He had the oven and sometimes would permit neighborhood women to use it for their own baking.  To purchase foods, city dwellers visited different specialty shops.

The general store came about to consolidate many different kinds of items under one roof. Typically, the patron would request an item which the shop keeper would package from bulk containers in the quantity desired. Around the middle of the 1800s the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company began to establish small stores that provided dry goods. Clarence Saunders started permitting his customers at his dry goods store to get the containers themselves, thereby introducing the self-service concept and establishing his Piggly Wiggly chain in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916. But it was still a dry goods store. Around the same time in Los Angeles, using the model of the large farmers’ market, a 32,000-sqaure foot public market called the White Arcade opened an indoor store with all kinds of food products. Not only did it provide meats, produce, dairy and dry goods all under one roof, it also provided parking.

So, the modern grocery store was born less than 100 years ago.  What a leap that was! In the history of commerce, nothing like it had been seen before! A transaction model common in ancient Mesopotamia was replaced!

This concept gained popularity rapidly and small regional chains began to expand and merge. The supermarket, as it came to be known, was initially a phenomenon of independents and small, regional chains. In the late 1930s, A&P began consolidating its thousands of small service stores into larger supermarkets, often replacing as many as five or six stores with one large,  And the trend continues to today, resulting in supermarkets that are so large it can take 30 minutes or more JUST to walk all the aisles and not stop to shop.

The 1970s saw the introduction of the discounters and mega warehouses, such as Sam’s and Costco. Whole Foods and Trader Joes continued the trend with a niche market in mind. Online grocery shopping became available.

But then, something happened, and a reversal occurred. Specialty shops started to emerge. Bread bakers, fresh fish markets, and small green grocers started to pop up again in the 1980s. And the growth in the popularity of farmers markets has continued with over 7,175 markets in the United States by mid-2011 and evidence that the trend is continuing this year.

While some people will prefer to shop mega stores like Walmart where one stop provides access to a wide array of products, the strong support of quality specialty shops has been established, even in the current economic


A growing group of consumers prefer quality to convenience and are willing to stop at more than one place to acquire the food that will feed their families.  The group organizing the Wild Ramp in Huntington has no doubt that current demand exists to support the market; a major issue has been to identify farms within the 250-mile radius to provide enough. With many small farmers in West Virginia searching for markets, the trend to local food specialty shops is a wonderful avenue for distribution.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 22, 2012 3:38 pm

    Thank goodness for this latest trend where can actually find real food to eat.

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