Thursday, December 13, 2007

Grand Union, Independent Innovator

Grand Union held its own through the Depression years and made slow but steady progress through World War II. By the war’s end, however, the company faced a new challenge, perhaps less from external forces than from a growing friction between company president J. Spencer Weed and Lansing P. Shield, vice-president and number two man in the company. Weed was extremely conservative in his approach, and was dead-set against joining the industry trends toward building larger, suburban stores and self-service. Over the years, Shield would emerge as Weed’s polar opposite, full of energy and ideas for transforming and expanding the (then fairly young) supermarket concept and eager to push Grand Union out onto the industry’s leading edge.

The relationship between Weed and Shield (I know, together the names sound like a lawn care product, don’t they?) reached a final breach in mid-1946 when Weed entered into negotiations with the American Stores Company (parent of Acme Markets) to sell Grand Union out. American was multiples larger than Grand Union, with 1,964 stores at the end of 1945 vs. Grand Union’s 320 stores. The merger deal was officially announced in the New York Times on October 8, 1946.

Aghast at the prospect of having spent 22 years in building up Grand Union only to hand its future over to another firm, Shield vigorously opposed the merger. Ultimately, enough key stockholders and directors agreed with Shield that the deal was called off, as announced in the Times on November 5th. Weed stepped down from Grand Union’s presidency immediately, and within a year would retire from the board of directors as well, leaving Shield in full control of the company.

Shield moved quickly to convert the Grand Union stores to self-service and to ramp up the company’s building program. In the next ten years, he would spearhead the development of new concepts in store layout, breaking away from the traditional “aisle format” into a sort of departmentalized “island” concept. Grand Union was also an early leader in the use of color in their stores, carefully selecting hues for each area to maximize sales appeal.

Not only was Shield a grocery industry innovator, he was an inventor as well. The Food-O-Mat, as Fortune magazine called it, was Shield’s “personal, patented invention”, and was first used to handle canned goods. The key feature of the Food-O-Mat was its gravity fed design, with shelves that sloped downward toward the customer aisle, while stockers would replenish cans from a hidden back aisle, behind the wall. One advantage of this design was that restocking could take place during a regular shift as opposed to overnight, or to getting in the way of customers while they shopped. The Food-O-Mat became so successful that it was soon adapted for a number of other uses, including cosmetics. Grand Union eventually set up a subsidiary to manufacture and market the Food-O-Mat to other chains (both food and non-food), including Macy’s, Kroger and even direct competitors like spurned suitor Acme, among many others.

The first photo is of the Glens Falls, NY store exterior from 1947. The second, from the same year, shows the Food-O-Mat in the Monroe, NY store. The third and fourth photos show a wider store view and a close up of the “Meateria” (definitely my nominee for scariest department name ever) from unidentified stores in 1948 and 1949. Just for fun, in a tip of the hat to Grand Union’s Route Division, the last photo shows a route truck and salesman’s car from the Syracuse, NY branch in 1947.


  1. Meateria, LOL! I wouldn't believe you on this, Dave, but the proof is actually in print. LOL! Too funny.

    I was also going to say that Weed sounded liek something else besides a lawn care product but I'll refrain. LOL

  2. Are the '46 & '47 pics new stores or existing ones that would have gone up before WWII? there were shortages of building materials for awhile after the war and the postwar construction boom really didn't take off until about '49.

  3. Only 322 store at the end of WWII? Grand Union must have grown by gangbusters afterwards, much to Acme's chagrin as Grand Union would be one of their key competitors in upstate New York, Washington-Baltimore, and New York City-Northern/Central Jersey.

    I'm guessing that Grand Union was already history in Pennsylvania and mainly focused on New York City at this time. Acme had wanted a bigger bite of the Big Apple and by the 1970's would be gone from the NYC region. Neither Grand Union nor Acme ever became major players in the DC region, nor did A&P and Food Fair as Safeway and Giant of Landover were the two dominant perators. Yet Acme, Food Fair, and Grand Union would survive in the region for quite a while and A&P survives today as Super Fresh. The Florida stores must have been part of the post war expansion.

    Grand Union built architecturely distinctive store designs from the 1950's until the final remains becoming part of C&S Distributors at the beginning of this century.
    However even in metro New York, GU was often seem as the A&P "overflow", similar somewhat higher than the competition pricing, numerous locations, clean well kept if often small stores with decent perishibles but no compelling reason to go to Grand Union over A&P, Stop-n-Shop, Pathmark or the various regionals in the region.

  4. Gee, Didi, I have no idea what you're talking about........:)

    Anonymous -

    From the interior photos, its hard to tell whether the stores were built new or just had renovated interiors. The first photo (from '47) looks to me like could it easily be an older store updated for self-service. Many Grand Unions from the tail end of the 40's have a porcelain panel facade, and this one doesn't. The construction style (especially the door arrangement) does suggest that it could be older. Don't know for sure, though.

    Southland Retail -

    Grand Union only had 318 open at the end of fiscal 1947."Gangbusters" is a good way to describe the growth from that point. They entered Florida in 1956 when they bought four Miami stores called "B-Thrifty".

    From everything I've read, Acme, GU and Food Fair were the real players in NY/NJ, with A&P in the mix by virtue of their headstart and the tremendous amount of small, aging stores. A&P appears to have lost ground every year to the other three chains.

    Was Stop and Shop ever a significant player outside of New England?

  5. Stop & Shop entered northern NJ in the late 70s or early 80s, probably migrating down from Connecticut where they had significant market share. They didn't last long. This was before they had their super store prototype. They more recently returned via their parent company, Ahold's acquisition of First National Stores (Finast) and their acquisition of Grand Union locations. They seem to be doing better on this go around than on their last one.

    Don't forget Shop-Rite as a player. Pathmark came out of that co-op. Finast was a secondary player who entered NY/NJ through the purchase of Safeway's unprofitable stores. The acquisition was a drag on Finast and added to their mounting problems. Into the 1950s, they had been, by far, the dominant grocer in New England.

    Grand Union had a significant presence in upstate NY (particularly the Hudson Valley), as well as Connecticut, and Vermont. This was a combination of acquisitions and aggressive new store development through the 50s and early 60s. The New England stores tended to be smaller than the large for their time stores that they built elsewhere. In many places, GU was building 30k sf stores at a time when the typical chain super market was half that size (late 50s/early 60s),

  6. Ahold owned Finast before owning Stop N Shop. The Rabb family was SNS' owner for many years prior to Ahold. Finast acquired Safeway's poorly performing NYC division roughly 1962, as previously stated, it would be a drag on Finast, which was eventually purchased by Pick 'n Pay of Ohio. By the time of the SNS merger, most NYC/Jersey Finasts were bannered Edwards Food Warehouse and under the auspices of Giant-Carlisle, PA. Ahold had transfered some of the more Delaware Valley New Jersey Edwards transfered to Giant-Landover, MD after its 1998 acquisition.

    Present day metro NYC is actually a very fragmented market with different areas-Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester and Hudson Valley all having carved out a territory and niche.
    The Shop Rite co-op, A&P, Pathmark and Stop N Shop have the largest markets shares and metro wide presence. A&P primarily uses Waldbaum's on Long Island, where King Kullen, one of the first true supermarkets is a major competitor.
    The Pathmark merger should give A&P an edge in market share.

  7. You know, when I asked the question earlier about Stop and Shop being a player outside of New England, I was totally thinking about the original Rabb/Rabinowitz-owned company and not at all about the modern day Ahold-owned incarnation.

    I guess in writing this blog I get too easily stuck in the retro-mindset! Certainly, I've seen the current Stop and Shops in the NY/NJ metro areas.

  8. Grand Union was a great inovater in their stores, their distribution system was 20 years behind the times in the 1960's.

    Grand Union did not have a clue when it came to transportation and logistics.

  9. I have come across discount tickets redeemable from The Grand Union Tea Co. series No.2

  10. The Grand Union Tea Co's. office's were located at Jay & Front St.
    Brooklyn N.Y.

  11. I remember in my home town we had a GRANDUNION and ACME (next door to my grammar school) within two blocks of each other a mile from our house (Hawthorne NJ). But, my father drove 5 miles to A&P first Ridgewood and then Midland Parkbecause it was a cleaner store and had a better selection

  12. I remember Grand Union in Vermont.
    This was in the 1950's and 1960's
    Grand Union pioneered the one stop shopping store
    GrandWay that Walmart uses today. The used S&H Trading Stamps in their marketing Grand Union had large clean supermarkets and were very competitive featuring National brands as well as their own private label goods