Thursday, December 20, 2007

On Their Toes at the Grand Union

Without a doubt, the employees of this particular Grand Union were “on their toes” on a regular basis, due in no small measure to the fact that Grand Union’s corporate honchos held court directly above their store. The photos above, from 1952, show the company’s brand-spanking new corporate offices which opened in November 1951 (the store opened the following April) in the Elmwood Shopping Center at 180 Broadway in East Paterson, New Jersey.

In 1950, Grand Union announced their intention to vacate their longtime offices at 50 Church Street in Manhattan and move to Bergen County, NJ, a bustling, densely populated suburban area located across the river from New York. Many American companies from the 50’s through the 70’s forsook their downtown offices (A&P would finally move from their NYC offices to Montvale, NJ nearly 25 years later) for sprawling, beautifully landscaped suburban campuses, but a shopping center? This was something else again, and it garnered Grand Union a fair amount of favorable publicity in such publications as the New York Herald-Tribune, Fortune, Time and Architectural Forum, from which the above photos were taken. In both perception and reality, the move allowed Grand Union to “get close” to their customers.

The Grand Union store at this location was understandably used as a proving ground for the chain, and one of the obvious manifestations of this was in the area of store layout, as clearly shown in the store’s “planogram” (to use a modern-day term) shown in the last photo. The Elmwood store layout was aptly likened in a June 1955 Fortune magazine article to a wagon wheel, with “numerous aisles that fan out as do the spokes of a wheel”. A striking departure from standard supermarket aisle design, this unconventional design was championed by Grand Union president Lansing Shield (lionized in previous posts) with a view toward using it in more of the chain’s stores.

It’s interesting to ponder why this unique layout ultimately failed to win favor over the age-old parallel aisle design that still predominates in the supermarket business. Perhaps customers were consistently confused by the layout or over time found it tiresome. Maybe older shoppers had difficulty navigating the different departments. I’m fairly certain that cost played a part, with extra travel time required to restock the shelves. Another probable factor would have been the need to maximize shelf space as the number of items the average grocery store stocked absolutely skyrocketed in the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s.

In the summer of 1956, the flagship store was damaged by fire, forcing it to close for three months. A temporary store was set up in a circus-style tent on the parking lot. A slightly expanded version of the store reopened, with the glassed-in vestibule extended toward the direction of the parking lot. In 1966, a two-story, 100,000 square foot Grand Way department store was built at the opposite end of the shopping center.

On a recent business trip to New Jersey, I decided one evening to swing by the ol’ Elmwood in hopes of taking a close look at the store and HQ, curious to see who now inhabited it. To my surprise, the shopping center was still there, but the Grand Union headquarters building and store were completely gone! The headquarters portion was torn down and replaced with single story stores and a standard-issue Walgreens now stands where the GU store was in the foreground of the first photo. Time most certainly does march on. The Grand Way store is fairly intact from an exterior standpoint and is now a (Big)Kmart.

And by the way, if you look for East Paterson, New Jersey on a current map, you won’t find it. In 1973, the town’s name was changed to Elmwood Park.


  1. I love the unique layout. they should have stuck with. Too bad the headquarters is gone though. Looks like a great modern building.

  2. A planogram is a detailed plan for shelving of particular SKUs. They've been around since at least the early 70s.

    The layout of the store seems wasteful of space. National Tea had a rounded store with a somewhat less radical aisle layout. It was built as a prototype in New Orleans in the 70s. It was later converted to a more conventional layout.

  3. Food Lion and some later Kash-N-Karry locations adopted a round prototype a few years back, during the period Kash-N-Karry differed from Food Lion in name only. It's definately less radical than the Grand Union layout, which would have been better suited to creative use of otherwise ackward urban real estate, but hardly a suburban plaza. I doubt the Hannaford-like Sweetbay(Kash-N-Karry's successor) will continue to build the round store, but the design seems well suited to Food Lion.

  4. Didi - I'd love to have seen the thing, and was surprised to find it gone.

    Anonymous - The Kash and Karry's are all being converted to Sweetbay, right?

  5. The conversion of Kash-N-Karry to Sweetbay was completed this summer.
    I've yet to see one, but the format sounds more like the upmarket format used by Hannaford in New England. Even the cornucopia symbol and Hannaford font is used for Sweetbay. Overall, they will have to prove they offer comparable service and quality to Publix, which slipped in service of the last decade.

    BTW, many of the Gulf Coast Grand Union's became Kash-N-Karry's after Grand Union exited South Florida in the 80's.

  6. I was surprised and extremely happy to find this page because from October of 1987 until April of 2001 I worked at the Elmwood Park Grand Union. In fact, I was the last employee to leave that building. Unfortunately I was let go when the company went out of business, and as much as I hated working there, I miss it like hell and I'd go back in a second. I have a few pictures of the store that I took the day we closed the doors. I could email them to you if you'd like.

    -John, Elmwood Park

  7. John - That would be fantastic. I love hearing from folks who worked in these places! You can email them to me at:

    Looking forward to posting them!


  8. Dave,

    Sorry for the email in addition to the comment. I didn't think the comment actually went through. I'll scan the pics and send them as soon as I get a chance. The Elmwood Shopping Center was a huge part of my life growing up. I wish I could find someone who has some pictures of the other stores that were there. It was great to see the pic from 1966 because you can actually see the Grand Way, which I remember from when I was a little kid. Keep up the good work!


  9. The women's store was called Canadien's. Mr. L was actually a mens store and a separate boys store, both related to Lobels and the Lobel family that operated the childrens store. Mr L for Boys and Lobels were the headquarters for parochial school uniforms for Bergen and Passaic counties. I worked at the boys and mens stores for many years throughout high school and college. Many fond memories and great stories...