TRAVERSE CITY — In 1925 the Traverse City area had no fewer than 48 grocery stores and 19 meat markets. Every neighborhood had at least one of them, supported largely by families nearby, many without the luxury of an automobile.
If Traverse City resembled the rest of the nation, there was one store for every 51 families and one wholesaler for every 43 outlets. One of every 18 workers was employed in food distribution, retail and wholesale. The food industry employed an enormous number of workers, certainly more than today with fewer wholesalers and retailers.
At the same time, groceries and meat were expensive. Expenditures for food consumed a third of a family's budget in 1920, a surprising figure when we recall the low prices we paid only 20 years ago. By contrast, we spend only about a 10th of our income on food today.
To understand changes in the food industry, you must look at the neighborhood grocer in the first decades of the 20th century. Typically he ran a shop no bigger than 20 feet across and scarcely deeper. He would have carried canned goods and bulk items, a selection of seasonal produce, and a few other items such as detergent and cleaning products.
Frequently, the grocery owner would live above the store, his income barely paying for his accommodation. The way the grocery business was conducted underlined both the limitations and benefits of a small business.
Patrons were not allowed access to stacks of cans and packages, most of them displayed on shelves behind a counter. In slight compensation, the produce section was often open in the center of the room. With self-service decades in the future, the proprietor would obtain cans and packages as directed, sometimes using a special grabbing tool to get them off the shelves. He would grind coffee beans and measure out quantities of dried beans. He would pour the desired quantity of vinegar into bottles and select exactly four eggs, if that's what the customer wanted.
Understandably, in a time before widespread refrigeration, food quality was often questionable, particularly for fresh produce and other products liable to spoil.
On the other hand, service was friendly, credit was offered if the family was short on a particular week, and free delivery was advertised; a service especially valuable to customers without automobiles. As likely as not, children of the grocery store owner made the deliveries, often at little cost to the business. Since markups on food were so low, their labor contributed nicely to maintaining customers' loyalty and goodwill.
Marc Levinson, in his recent book, "The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America," writes of three inventions that changed the grocery business beginning in the 1920s:
n The widespread use of the automobile,
n Refrigeration, both commercial and residential, and
n The advance in cellophane packaging.
These innovations enabled shoppers to buy in quantity and to visit many stores in search of bargains. They marked the beginning of the end of neighborhood groceries.
In Traverse City, the revolution in the grocery business began in the late '30s and early '40s. At that time, three large grocery stores emerged from the jostling competition among smaller stores: Oleson's, Tom's and A&P. All of them offered shoppers access to displayed goods, presenting them with shopping baskets and carts, grocery and meat departments combined under one roof, and checkout lanes at the front of the store.
There were more choices, and a variety of brand names. Prices declined, compared to early days, though the relaxed conversations with store proprietors became only memories of the past. The grocery business had changed for good.
A&P understood one part of the business before its competitors: Selling high volumes let the chain lower prices.
A&P soon replaced its smaller stores with "supermarkets," a term that became popular during the late '30s and early '40s.
With thousands of square feet of floor space available to display goods, supermarkets could sell far more products than their competitors. Local groceries like Oleson's and Tom's met the challenge through upgrading their own facilities. As a result, the grocery business locally is not dominated by a single name as it is in some communities.
Change never ends. Beyond the supermarket, the grocery business has undergone a more radical transformation: the big-box store as exemplified by Walmart and Meijer locally. Now shoppers at such stores can get not only their groceries for the week, but also any other item they might require or desire — all under the same roof. As with the "supermarket," the goal is high volume selling, a practice that lowers prices as it crushes smaller competitors. For better or worse, it is the dominant mode of selling goods in the United States.
Now there are whispers that farm markets and direct selling from farmer to customer might make inroads into the grocery business.
What a change that would be; back to medieval markets — and back to the future.