As mentioned before, in the later fifties and early sixties, many successful supermarket chains eagerly sought to branch out into non-food discount retail. There were a number of reasons for this, including the desire to leverage a management and merchandising approach that had already proven successful in foods. Another reason was that by this time, many of the larger chains were developing their own shopping centers/real estate and wanted to capitalize on the traffic their supermarkets were generating instead of giving up that benefit to outside firms. A major reason, of course, was the fact that profit margins generally were (and are) considerably higher on general merchandise items than on food.
Salem, Massachusetts-based J.M. Fields was not Food Fair’s first choice for a merger partner. In fact, as early as 1959, Food Fair president Louis Stein expressed a strong interest in acquiring E.J. Korvette, Inc., the white-hot discounter who was in the midst of a meteoric rise to prominence in retail circles and was a darling of Wall Street. Stein could not come to terms with Korvette founder Eugene Ferkauf, so Food Fair tabled the whole idea for several years.
On August 14, 1961, Food Fair closed on its purchase of Enterprise-J.M. Fields, Inc., a chain of 33 discount stores with locations in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina and Florida. Fields was one of many New England-based retail chains that began their existence as “mill stores”, which sold mostly clothes and linens in their early years, later adding other types of goods. The American textile industry, for much of the country’s existence, was concentrated in the New England states. To save labor costs, the industry fled en masse to the Southern states in the 1950’s and 60’s (sadly, it has since fled en masse to Asia). In several cases, the abandoned factories were then converted to giant outlet stores, from which a number of well-known chains grew. The Feldman family transformed their mill operation into what would become the J.M. Fields discount stores. Other chains who started in this fashion were Lechmere, Atlantic Stores, Mammoth Mart (one of the coolest!) and Ann and Hope, among several others.
Over the next decade or so, Fields prospered under Food Fair, opening many new stores in FF-developed shopping centers. The 1970’s ultimately proved to be rough going for Food Fair (whose stores would eventually go by the name Pantry Pride), and the J.M. Fields stores were sold off early in the company’s 1978 bankruptcy. A fun personal reflection (and photo) of shopping at J.M. Fields can be found at this link.