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.