Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Very Merry Christmas

From Christmas 1971, a beautiful night view of a Chicago department store legend – the Carson Pirie Scott & Co. flagship, a familiar sight on the corner of State and Madison Streets since 1899. (The store closed last year and is now being renovated for other uses.) The Louis Sullivan masterpiece, with its magnificent iron scrollwork façade, is a lily that certainly doesn’t need gilding. In my opinion however, the multi-colored Dickensian false façade Carsons installed that season, dubbed “The Village of Lights”, took Christmas window design to an entirely different plane.

For years, a semi-friendly rivalry existed between Carsons and their State Street neighbors, Marshall Field & Company and Goldblatt’s (Thanks to commenter Randy for pointing that Wieboldt's was a key player in the contest also. They purchased the former Mandel Bros. store, directly across Madison Street from Carsons, in 1961. Their suburban locations usually had Christmas windows as well.), to win the hearts of holiday shoppers and their kids with elaborate dioramas in their store windows. These usually involved a storyline sequence that unfolded as one walked along the sidewalk, straining with the rest of the crowd to get the best view of each successive window. A dwindling number of stores in Chicago and elsewhere carry on this tradition today. Our family usually felt that Field’s won the contest, but not every time. Unfortunately, I don’t remember this 1971 edition personally. We went downtown occasionally at that time, but it was a few years before we made it a regular “day after Thanksgiving” tradition. Nonetheless, I feel safe in saying that Carsons probably won the rivalry that year.

A couple of other interesting aspects shown in the photo are the classic 50’s-70’s Carsons logo and the futuristic, fluorescent State Street lighting of the same era. Years later, these light towers would be replaced with 1920’s-style fixtures to emulate an earlier era.

In 1979, following what looked at the time to be an emerging national trend, the City of Chicago closed off State Street to automobile traffic to create State Street Mall, allowing only pedestrian and bus access, and replacing a wide portion of the street with huge sidewalks, planters and the like. Slowing sales of State Street merchants and the flight of many shoppers to nearby Michigan Avenue's “Magnificent Mile” proved this to be a mistake within just a few years, but the problem wasn’t corrected until 1997, when State Street was “de-malled” and once again traffic flowed, to the relief of retailers up and down the strip. By then, of course, the retail world had dramatically changed.

Once again, I want to take this time to let everyone know how deeply I appreciate your support of this website, and to wish everyone a wonderful holiday season, spent with family and close friends. I especially want to thank you who have commented on the site, and who have sent me such warm, heartfelt emails with your own treasured memories. It means more than I can say. Thanks so much.

May the True Joy and the real meaning of Christmas be yours, and may you and your families enjoy a happy and healthy New Year. See you then!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sears - Christmastime in the O.C.

“The sun is shining, the grass is green.
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,
and I am longing to be up north”.

--The usually omitted first verse of
Irving Berlin’s classic song “White Christmas”

Well, as you can see, it’s actually a bit overcast, but I’ll bet the grass is green. The orange groves were plowed up a while back to make room for legions of new suburban homes, shopping centers like this one and Disneyland, but there are a few carefully selected palm trees. And we’re not in Beverly Hills, but rather in Costa Mesa, right in the heart of Orange County. More than likely the photo wasn’t taken on Christmas Eve, but it’s definitely from the Christmas season, as evidenced by that hallmark of Southern California style - a gold garland Christmas tree, standing right there atop the Sears.

This photo, shown courtesy of the Orange County Archives, depicts the Sears end of the South Coast Plaza shopping center, which opened at the corner of Bristol Street and Sunflower Avenue in Costa Mesa, California in November 1966 and was still looking prime 15 years later when the photo was taken. Although the shopping center itself was designed by the legendary Victor Gruen, the architect for the Sears store was the firm of (the also legendary) Stiles Clements and his son, Robert. This was one of the very last projects to occur under the elder Clements’ watch, as he passed away in January 1966, while the store was still under construction. A huge store at over 338,000 square feet including the auto center, garden shop and other structures, the South Coast Plaza Sears was the chain’s largest store in the far west at the time of its opening. It still exists.

I recently heard from the grandson of George Scherquist, construction manager for Sears’ Pacific Coast territory from the 1940’s through his retirement in 1968. Mr. Scherquist presided over one of the largest and most impressive store development programs in retail history, and the South Coast Plaza store would have to count as one of his crowning achievements.

Speaking of Sears (and we were), at this time last year I mentioned the wonderful Wish Book Web site, where a fascinating collection of department store catalogs are scanned in full and available for your viewing delight. A number of the catalogs are Christmas editions, including an outstandingly beautiful 1966 Sears Christmas catalog, published the year this store opened. Many catalogs have been added to the site in the past year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dominick's in December - 1971

An inviting sight on a cold winter evening, Dominick’s Finer Foods, known to Chicagoans then and now as simply “Dominick’s”, was a particular favorite of our family around Christmastime, with its great holiday platters and Heinemann’s Butter-Ritz coffee cakes. Probably the biggest claim to fame for Dominick’s was its reputation for a superb selection of ethnic foods, from S. Rosen’s rye bread to a host of Italian specialties, and everything in between. As a side note Dominick’s, along with Jewel, were the enablers-in chief of my Salerno Butter Cookie habit. (Boy, do I miss those. And did I just use the word “butter” twice in the same post?)

Dominick’s, with 45 stores at the time, had more than doubled in size in the previous year and a half, buying out 24 Kroger stores in the second half of 1970. These stores were gradually converted to the Dominick’s format throughout 1971. Dominick’s was the number four-ranked supermarket chain in the Chicago area in the early 70’s, behind Jewel, National Tea and Certified Grocers. They were already outselling A&P, who had over 100 stores in the area at the time, more than double those of Dominick’s. By the end of the decade, Dominick’s would be second only to Jewel, a position they still hold today.

I’m not sure of this store’s location, though I know Dominick’s had only a small number of stores with the cutout-lettered logo and the grooved façade. (Note I said “grooved” instead of “groovy’’, in keeping with this site’s policy of tasteful restraint.) The store strongly resembles the Park Ridge Dominick’s, opened in 1962, but that particular store featured striking modernist light fixtures in the parking lot, whereas the ones in this photo are more conventional.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Next Stop - The Island of Misfit Toys!

…but first we need to stop and stock up on our Vitamin C for the long trip. And here’s the perfect place to do it – Von’s! Santa pops up through the corrugated chimney while two of his tiny (white, inflatable plastic) reindeer look on. They’re joined by an attractive woman sporting the West Coast equivalent of “big hair”. From 1962, exact location unknown.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Wal-Mart Christmas, 1971

What to say about this one, my friends? Ok, how about the first three things that come to mind:

1. Those eerie Santa masks with large eye openings are great for hiding security cameras!
2. The oversized promo film boxes that Kodak used to make look cool, even stapled to a wall!
3. $9.94 per pound is a heckuva price for polyester!

Any other ideas?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Woolworth's-America's Christmas Store

Here’s a busy scene at the downtown Houston, Texas Woolworth store, from 1964. For a great many Americans, Woolworth’s was “America’s Christmas Store”, just as the pictured Santa Claus banners say. Woolworth, like its variety store competitors, had moved beyond the 10 cents price point eons ago by this time, but most items carried were still fairly small ticket. The expanded format of the Woolco stores would allow a much greater offering of large items, including television sets and furniture.

Since the Woolco program was still in its infancy, Woolworth stores like this were still the company’s mainstay. I really like the little Christmas trees throughout, and the internally lit signage.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'll Have a Blue Christmas at Ralphs

“She thinks I don’t see her admiring that shag non-skid bath rug, the one that matches her outfit. I can hear her letting out a little sigh. She’s probably saying to herself ‘I’m sure he’ll buy me another diamond ring or a mink stole. I’ll do my best to smile and act surprised’. I pretend not to notice but I do, believe me. And this year I’m not gonna let her down. It’ll be a Blue Christmas at our house this year, pal!” *

From Christmas 1964 at the brand-new Ralphs in Sunland, California, in the Sunhill Shopping Center at the corner of Sunland and Foothill Boulevards. You probably also noticed the stockman in the background, wearing a red-and-white candy striped apron. I’ve seen another photo of a Ralphs employee wearing one of these that I don’t believe was taken at Christmastime, so I guess they had to endure them year-round.
* Based on a 1987 Zayre commercial.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New Shoes from Woolco

It's Christmas season 1966 in this Woolco shoe department. A fairly quiet scene, but maybe the rest of the store was busy. People don’t usually give shoes as gifts anyway, do they? We definitely want to look nice on Christmas Day though, so a new pair of shoes is a must. In this photo, it looks like everyone bought new outfits (including stylish hats) to shop for shoes! (at Woolco.) And you’d probably need bloodhounds to find three salespeople in a shoe department today, but that’s been true for some time.

I particularly like the mirrors below the shoe displays, which allowed customers a curb’s eye view of their prospective new shoes. The wall signage is the early Woolco standard.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A&P's Christmas in Toledo, 1926

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, so I thought I’d shift gears for a while with some holiday related posts.

The photos above show the winners of A&P’s Christmas Display Window Contest, Toledo (Ohio) Division, from 1926. Up until the 1950’s, grocery stores generally featured a “window display” not dissimilar in concept to a fashion window in a department store. They usually consisted of artistically arranged food, cardboard display stand-ups and the like, oftentimes with an element of humor incorporated. For sure, the holidays brought out a burst of creativity in many grocery store staffs.

One of the things I love about these photos is that all four stores feature the same exact decorations, leading me to believe they must have all come from division headquarters. The placement varies, of course, as do the window configurations themselves. At this time A&P was near the peak of its store count, with nearly 15,000 units. Most of there were small “Economy Stores” (an A&P term) featuring dry groceries only, including their top-selling coffee brands. The first three stores feature Quality Meats signs, indicating that they were “combination stores”, among the first A&P’s to feature a meat department.

It is commonplace today to hear of the late 1920’s as a flush, prosperous time, and in comparison with the decade that followed it certainly was. The fact remained, however, that many Americans lived very simple lives at that time, with few luxuries. Many families purchased only staple items - flour, sugar, etc., and occasional meats, to supplement what they could grow or raise in their backyards or on their land. For those families, Christmastime was probably the lone exception to their regular buying habits.

For the record, the standings and store locations from the top: First Prize, 3376 Monroe Street, Second Prize, 305 South Detroit Street, and tied for Third Prize, 2208 Monroe Street and 1305 Collingwood Street.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kroger in the "Big D", 1965

These photos of the new Kroger at Dallas’ much-ballyhooed NorthPark Shopping Center were taken shortly after opening, which occurred in July 1965. They show the store’s entrance (the young girls are wearing outfits that don’t appear all that out-of-style today), the floral department, increasingly a standard part of supermarkets in upscale areas but by no means universal yet, the gourmet foods shelf, same story, the bakery and produce areas, the frozen dessert case (They just taste expensive!) with a colored strip panel matching the bakery area walls, the straightforwardly named toiletries section and the paper goods section, flanked by a relatively small greeting card display. In the early 1970’s, supermarket greeting card sections would be vastly expanded due to the products’ high margins, larger average store footprints and relentless promotion on the part of the card manufacturers. The décor package for this store, including the two-toned valances, was used on a number of Krogers, both newly constructed and remodeled, during the 1965-66 period.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

L'Elégance du Kroger

Here is a set of photos of a beautiful lady, all decked out in the best 1957 fashions, engaging in some serious shopping. If you had seen her at home, getting into her car, you’d think she was headed to Bloomingdale’s, Saks, maybe Lord & Taylor. Actually, her destination is…..uh, …Kroger. (OK, I’m not at all sure those department stores were located in Kroger territories at the time, but indulge me. Thanks.)

She pauses for a moment to contemplate the wonderful shopping experience that lies ahead, (and to ensure a good picture) then it’s off to every department. The gloves come off, a really good idea when handling that Tenderay beef. She examines every item carefully, ending up with a balanced mix of Kroger brands and nationally advertised favorites. Then it’s time for checkout and parcel load-up, meticulously handled by uniformed professionals - career people, respectably paid, the pride in their jobs evident.

Then she’s off, entering her car from the passenger side, just like they do in the movies.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Kroger - Flossed in the Fifties

Around 1955, Kroger kicked its expansion program into high gear, going far beyond simply replacing existing small grocery stores with larger supermarkets. For the first time in a decade, the company moved back into an acquisition mode, buying three supermarket chains in three successive months. On May 13, Kroger announced its purchase of Henke & Pillot, an 83-year old Houston based chain of 26 stores – 18 in greater Houston, three in Beaumont, and one each in Galveston, Port Arthur, Baytown, Velasco and Orange, Texas. In June, the company (who already had a sizable group of stores operating in its Madison, Wisconsin division)acquired Krambo Food Stores, Inc., an Appleton, Wisconsin based chain with seven Milwaukee stores, four in Appleton, three in Green Bay, two each in Oshkosh and Wausau, and one each in Fond-du-Lac, Merrill, Neenah, Manitowoc , Antigo and Sheboygan (yup, there ya go!). Additionally, six more Krambos were under construction at the time. And in late July, Kroger further beefed up its Texas presence (and picked up some new stores in Arkansas and Louisiana) when it bought out Childs Food Stores, Inc., of Jacksonville, Texas. The Childs stores operated under the Childs Piggly Wiggly name. The following year, Kroger added a big chain, at least in name. In January 1956, the company bought out Big Chain Stores, Inc. a chain of seven stores based in Shreveport, Louisiana, later combining it with the Childs group. All of these newly acquired stores continued to operate under their original names for a time, fitting in with Kroger chairman Joseph B. Hall’s much-touted decentralization approach. In 1957, in describing Kroger to a Business Week interviewer, he said “we are running 27 supermarket chains”.

Once again, Kroger threw in a divestiture amidst all of these acquisitions. In September 1957, Kroger sold off its Wichita, Kansas store division, then consisting of 16 stores, to J. S. Dillon and Sons Stores Company, then headed by Ray S. Dillon, son of the company founder. The former Kroger stores gave the Dillon firm a total of 51 units in 1957, located throughout central and western Kansas and in Denver, where the Dillon stores went under the name of King Soopers. As fate would have it, the Dillon family would play a key role in Kroger’s future. In 1982, Kroger would buy out the entire Dillon organization, which had of course grown impressively in the intervening years. In 2004, David Dillon, Ray S. Dillon’s grandson, was named chairman and CEO of Kroger, a position he presently holds.

Some new markets were started from scratch as well, with the introduction of Kroger’s first stores in Birmingham, Alabama. There was growth in the existing markets as well, with Chicago, for example, being the focus of a major push. In October 1956, Kroger announced a whopping 34-store expansion in the Chicago area, trumpeted by a special section in the Chicago Tribune. New Kroger stores were already open or soon would be in several of the new major new shopping centers in the area, including Old Orchard in Skokie, Hillside Shopping Center, located in west suburban Hillside off of the brand-spanking new Congress (now called Eisenhower) Expressway, and at Harlem-Irving Plaza (Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Rd, Chicago). Other stores were announced for Park Forest, Zion, and Franklin Park to name just a few locations.

This period also saw Kroger’s entry into the world of trading stamps. In nearly all cases, trading stamps were adopted as a defensive measure by chains needed to gain a competitive edge against other chains offering …well, trading stamps. Having successfully resisted the likes of Sperry and Hutchinson and others who tried to sell the idea to them over the years, Kroger decided to create their own program when it became necessary to jump in. In 1955, Kroger joined forces with a number of non-competing food chains to form Top Value Enterprises. Eventually, Kroger would buy out its partners, gaining full control of the company. Top Value redemption centers popped up all over Krogerland, oftentimes right next to the Kroger stores themselves. Several times a year, Top Value issued thick catalogs (several of which in the 60’s and 70’s featured Norman Rockwell-painted covers) offering all manner of treasures for those who weren’t offended by the taste of the multitudes of stamps it took to fill those good old “saver books”.

Shown above are three Kroger store photos from the fifties. The first store is an unknown Illinois location. The photo’s focus is a bit soft, but the great looking store can still be appreciated. I particularly like the dual appearance of the Kroger name on the front of the store, both above and on the store windows. The second photo shows the Kroger at the new Boardman Plaza, the first DeBartolo shopping center, which opened in their hometown of Boardman, Ohio (a Youngstown suburb) in 1951. This shopping center also featured an A&P and an independent called Century Foods.

The third photo features a very proud Kroger president Joseph B. Hall in front of the chain’s brand new flagship, a 44,000 square foot (gigantic for the time – most of Kroger’s new supermarkets were less than half that size) store that opened in May, 1957 at Swayne Field Shopping Center, Kroger’s first foray into shopping center development, in Toledo, Ohio. The huge store, Kroger’s “flossy new supermarket”, was featured in a profile piece (the Hall picture is from the cover of that issue) on Hall and Kroger in an August 1957 Business Week article. An earlier New York Times article listed the Toledo store’s attributes – “Gourmet and delicatessen departments stocked with such items as pickled rooster combs and chocolate covered ants - A barbecue corner that will custom-cook ribs, chickens, hams and other meats - a smokers’ center, staffed by a tobacconist, with lighters and pipes on sale - A lunch counter for quick snacks (Which, as the BW article helpfully noted, “keeps the men out of the way while the housewives do their shopping”), and the chain’s largest frozen food department”.

Flossy. Real flossy.

The artists’ renderings below show Kroger’s three acquisition prizes from 1955.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Postwar Kroger

In the decade following World War II, a number of key developments took hold in America’s chain grocery business. One was a marked increase in the amount of non-food items carried, particularly in the area of health and beauty products. Once limited to a few brands of soap and sometimes a handful of other basic personal care items, the forties and early fifties saw this area evolve into a full-fledged “department”. Kroger was in the forefront of this trend, with most stores featuring a full health and beauty lineup by the end of the 1940’s.

Another trend, more visible, was an acceleration of the replacement of the small storefront grocery store with the supermarket. In the decades immediately following WWII, the average size of the chain grocers’ stores steadily grew from around 5,000 to 8,000 square feet at the war’s end to 20,000 to 30,000 square feet (or more) by the early 1960’s. During that period, the store counts of nearly all the major chains actually decreased, as two, three or more stores within a given trade area were replaced by one large supermarket. Kroger went from 2,611 stores in 1946 to 1,587 in 1955, for example, although sales more than doubled during the same period. The declining store count trend came to an end in the 1960’s when the conversion to supermarkets was largely complete, and the large chains grew rapidly by the continued addition of stores in new suburban areas and through acquisition.

On this front, Kroger was forced to move slower than many of its fellow large chains, due to the fact that it owned a large number of its properties, and were bound to others via long-term leases. Beyond this, the simple fact remained that a great number of Kroger’s smaller stores were very successful. Things gradually picked up steam as the 50’s progressed, and attractive new Kroger supermarkets opened in many shopping centers on main drags throughout their territories.

The year 1946 saw some key milestones in Kroger history. First, the company’s name was shortened from “The Kroger Grocery and Baking Co.” to simply “The Kroger Co.”, the name it continues to go by today. Also, the famous Raymond Loewy-designed logo, the “Kroger Blue” rectangle with distinctive white lettering made its first appearances on store signage, product packaging and in advertising. Prior to this time, no distinct logo was used (unless you count the “B.H. Kroger” script logo on the store windows in the chain’s earliest years) and the Kroger name appeared in a multitude of different lettering styles. The Loewy logo was modernized in 1961 to the version we’re familiar with today.

Another very significant event was the 1946 appointment of Joseph B. Hall as Kroger’s president. Hall, a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Chicago, joined Kroger in 1931 as head of real estate, working his way to the top of the company from there. Hall did much to hone Kroger’s successful management development program and was also a driving force behind Kroger’s aggressive growth through acquisition, particularly in the late 1950’s and early 60’s with the notable expansions into California and Texas among other areas. Under Hall’s leadership, Kroger revamped its line of private brands, dropping various long-used brand names in favor of a unified Kroger brand with the new logo. Hall would become company chairman in 1961, leaving the post in 1964 to become chairman of the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank.

Pictured above are two artists’ renderings from 1950 and 1951, featuring the Kroger blue blade pylon. Below are pictured several of Kroger’s well-selling private label products, resplendent with the famous logo. The “Spotlight” coffee brand was used for years, even in Kroger-owned stores that didn’t bear the Kroger name. In Atlanta, for example, where Kroger got its start in 1935 with the purchase of 25 Piggly Wiggly stores, Kroger’s Spotlight coffee was sold for many years before the stores were finally converted to the Kroger name.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Kroger of '49

Sorry for the shorter post this time around, I’m scrambling to get some work stuff done before we leave for Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday. We’re looking forward to the trip - the forecast calls for a 10% chance of snow and a 90% chance of Portillo’s.

These photos, however, say a thousand words. They’re from 1949 and show a Kroger interior in fine form. I love the wide shot, showing the checkout ladies with their official Kroger uniforms and heavy-duty cash registers, several well (and warmly) dressed customers, the bright white walls, and of course the bold, colorful graphics of the era’s product packaging. Of course there’s a box of Tide, “the washday miracle”, that most photogenic of consumer products. In the foreground are some bottled juices, including Sunsweet Prune Juice. Whenever my grandparents from Rhode Island came to visit us, a couple of these bottles would mysteriously show up on our kitchen counter. 25 years afterward, the labels looked virtually the same as those pictured. And it didn’t taste bad, provided you drank it in (very) small quantities. Of course it had other effects as well, and as my Grandpa used to say…..wait, on second thought, I’ll spare you that.

The artist’s rendering below shows a typical Kroger exterior from the same period.

Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Remembering JFK, 45 Years Later

The photograph above was taken in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, 45 years ago today. It depicts President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, along with Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie en route from Love Field Airport to the Dallas Trade Mart, where the president was scheduled to give a speech. The photo was taken at approximately 12:25 pm, as the motorcade passed in front of a new Safeway store at 3707 Lemmon Avenue. Just minutes later, the limousine would make its fateful turn into Dealey Plaza, and the course of history would be forever changed.

This photo was taken by Safeway Dallas Division employee Jack Zeller, who was assigned to follow up on the Lemmon Avenue store’s grand opening which had taken place the day before. Zeller had his camera along to take pictures of the new store for the company magazine. The president’s motorcade route and approximate timing had been published days earlier in the Dallas papers (something that would never happen today), and in a bit of serendipity, would pass right in front of the Safeway. As you can see, he managed to capture a fine picture as the Lincoln Continental passed in front of the store.

If anyone finds this combination of retail history and that tragic moment in American life to be in poor taste, please forgive me. I do think, however, that there is something moving and patriotic in the fact that one would be proud enough of the president to want to photograph him in front of their business. And it reinforces my appreciation of the risk our presidents assume in interacting with the public, even with today’s far stricter security practices.

I can remember the sense of pride I felt (and still feel, when I think about it) in grade school at having been born during the Kennedy administration. Our class was roughly split between Kennedy and Johnson era babies. More than once it came up as a topic of conversation in class, although certainly none of us had any personal memories of his presidency - just some facts, our parents’ memories, and exposure to the growing Kennedy legend. To be sure, this admiration was by no means limited to those of us born during his presidency.

Would President Kennedy be revered in the same way had he lived to finish his term, or been reelected in 1964, or if he were still alive today at age 91? I’m not sure that’s even possible. Then as now, the country faced monumental challenges, including the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the struggle for civil rights, just to begin a list. More likely, he would have ended up with the mixed legacy that most presidents seem to have. But perhaps he would be. Who’s to say?

One thing is assured - that John F. Kennedy stands as a symbol of America’s promise, forever young and vibrant, frozen in time.

Pictured below is a similar scene from a happier day. Taken on March 23, 1962, President Kennedy’s motorcade is shown passing the Berkeley, California Safeway en route to the University of California to accept an honorary degree and speak at the University’s Charter Day ceremonies at Memorial Stadium. Over 93,000 people were on hand for the speech – a record for both the University and the President.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Kroger in Cleveland, 1935

Despite a 28% drop in sales from 1929 to 1933 and a number of other challenges, Kroger withstood the onslaught of the depression better than many of its grocery chain counterparts. With nearly 5,000 stores, Kroger was in a dominant position in many of its markets.

One of the “other challenges” came in April 1930, when Kroger chairman William H. Albers resigned to start his own supermarket chain. The Albers Super Markets would become a good-sized player in the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky areas, strongly pushing national brands in their advertising against Kroger’s hot-selling, well regarded private label brands. In 1955, Albers sold out to Atlanta-based Colonial Stores. Beginning in the thirties, Kroger also took on a leadership role in fighting the anti-chain store movement, whose primary target was The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P), but which constituted a threat to the entire chain store industry. The battle, which played out over nearly two decades, was costly in terms of legal expenses, but also in the form of price reductions necessary to sway public sentiment over to the chains’ side of the argument.

An exciting development for Kroger was the opening of its first departmentalized “superstores” (not to be confused with the much better known Kroger Superstores of the 1970’s). The first of these early superstores opened in 1930 on Government Square in Cincinnati, and similar stores would soon open in Kroger’s other major territories, including Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin. Thirty-four of these deluxe units would be open by 1935.

There were major acquisitions for Kroger from 1928 through 1940, including 85 Cox Grocery stores in the Little Rock area, 58 Oakley Economy Stores in eastern Illinois and western Indiana, and 15 stores purchased from the Model Grocery and Baking Co. of Springfield, Missouri, among others. There was also a divestiture – in late 1934, Kroger sold 53 of its 56 Oklahoma stores to Safeway Stores, Incorporated, citing the difficulty in managing the stores from distant Cincinnati.

Also, a famous Kroger product was born during this period. In 1939, Kroger introduced its special patented process for meat tenderization under the trade name “Tenderay”. Kroger would market their Tenderay beef exclusively until 1942, when it opened the process up to be licensed to other firms. Tenderay, along with older Kroger tradenames Country Club and Big K (which, unlike Tenderay, are still in use) would become a fixture in heartland kitchens for decades.

The photos above are circa 1935 and depict the Kroger store at 2227 Noble Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and appear courtesy of the Cleveland State University Library. Note in the second photo the competing Fisher Foods store right next door. The signage is typical for Kroger in the 30’s. Interestingly, their sign colors during that era were often green, black and white, rather than more familiar Kroger Blue (and “Coral Red”) which came later. Here is a link to a neat film clip from 1947, showing a Kroger store that was probably around ten years old at the time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Barney Kroger - The Cincinnati Kid

The history of Kroger, like that of so many companies born in the same era, is a great American story. The roots of today’s Kroger Company reach back to 1876, when 16-year old Bernard Henry Kroger took a job selling coffee and tea door-to-door for The Great Northern and Pacific Tea Company in his hometown of Cincinnati. Kroger, one of ten children born to German immigrants, worked hard to help support his family, who lived in a flat above a dry goods store the family owned. After two years, Kroger left Great Northern to join the William White Company, another coffee and tea firm, leaving that firm shortly thereafter for the Imperial Tea Company.

When Imperial began to run into trouble, the owners asked young Kroger (who had been working a wagon route up to that point) to manage the company’s store for a 10% cut of the profits, which at the time were virtually nonexistent. Convinced he could turn things around, he took up the challenge. A stickler for quality with more than a bit of starch in his personality, Kroger built a following for the store. Interestingly, as Progressive Grocer noted, “It wasn’t a wealthy clientele. They were wage-earners’ wives who came back to shop, and told their friends…” Having saved up $372 from a year of toil, a considerable sum in 1883, Kroger approached the Imperial Tea owners with an offer to buy a one-third interest in the company. They refused, offering an increased share of the profits instead. Adamant about owning a stake in the game, Barney decided to strike out on his own.

With an additional $350 borrowed from a friend, Kroger opened “The Great Western Tea Company”, a tiny store on Cincinnati’s Pearl Street, replete with fire-engine red paint and gilt lettering, with a horse-drawn wagon sporting the same colors. Through some initial setbacks, including the loss of the horse and wagon in an unfortunate train crossing accident, a flood which destroyed the store’s initial stock, and an attempt by his landlord to increase his store’s rent (forcing Kroger to move to a less attractive location on a side street), Kroger persevered.

Within months, Kroger opened a second store, and by mid-1885 had added two more for a total of four units. By 1893, after ten years on his own, Kroger had 17 stores and was considered one of the most successful businessmen in Cincinnati. In 1902, The Great Western Tea Co. was reincorporated as The Kroger Grocery and Baking Company, which would remain the company’s legal name for the next 40 years. The word “baking” in the company’s name reflected an important aspect of Kroger’s business. At the turn of the century, Kroger made a splash by announcing his plans to set up the company’s own bakery, selling loaves to Kroger customers at half the average going price, then 5 cents each. Not only would this help build business for his stores, but it also would enable Kroger to capture a bigger chunk of his customers’ bread budget, beyond just bulk flour, butter and egg sales. As he acknowledged to a New York Times interviewer in 1901 - “In Cincinnati, with its large percentage of thrifty Germans, bread is usually baked in the home”. At two for a nickel, Kroger projected sales of 25,000 loaves per day to those thrifty folks.

Another innovative step Kroger took was born out of the company’s 1904 acquisition of the Nagel butcher shop chain in Cincinnati. After initially operating the meat markets separately, Kroger made a decision to integrate them into his grocery stores. Over the initial objections of his butchers, who resented the loss of their independence and the new bookkeeping requirements Kroger imposed, these early forerunners of the “complete food market” proved to be a huge success and had a great influence on the chain food store business as a whole.

With a solid base in Cincinnati, Kroger began to expand to other areas, first to nearby Hamilton, Ohio, then to Dayton and Columbus, where the company had 15 and 8 stores respectively by 1910. These initial forays were followed by an expansion drive (which reached a fever pitch by the late 1920’s) to other cities and the smaller towns in between- Detroit, St. Louis, Peoria, Indianapolis, Toledo, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Youngstown and Charleston (WV), to name some examples. Much of this growth was accomplished through acquisition – 109 Piggly Wiggly and 43 Kohn Stores in the St. Louis and Central Illinois areas, 108 Piggly Wiggly stores in Louisville, 114 Bowers grocery stores in Memphis and the surrounding area, (along with yet more Piggly Wigglys) and Universal Stores of Madison, Wisconsin. In the coming decades, acquisitions would continue to provide a major vehicle for Kroger’s growth.

In late 1926, rumors began to fly that Kroger would merge with Philadelphia-based American Stores Company, possibly in combination with First National Stores or the H.C. Bohack chain. While some talks were held, these plans never came to fruition, and in my opinion would likely have not gone over well in light of the beginnings of a movement against chain store “monopolists” (or more accurately, oligarchs) that would gain sentiment as the 30’s rolled on.

In December 1927, B.H. Kroger sold his stock in the company, staying on as chairman but stepping down as president, turning that responsibility over to William H. Albers. Later on, he would repurchase a huge block of Kroger stock to help bolster confidence in the company through the depression years that followed. In November 1931, with nearly 4,900 stores in operation, he retired altogether. Barney Kroger passed away in July 1938, leaving behind a company that 70 years later is the largest company in America whose mainline business is supermarkets – an admirable legacy.

These photos are undated – the top photo showing a “B.H. Kroger” store circa the dawn of the 20th century. Below is a typical Kroger from the early 30’s, near the end of Mr. Kroger’s tenure with the company.