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.


  1. Fantastic post. The art work is unreal. I never realized Kroger was such a large company.

  2. I wonder if "Canasta Mix" is significantly different than "Bridge Mix"?

  3. I love these.

    Any info on who did the artwork, Dave?

  4. Richard - Thanks very much! Yes, Kroger has been one of the big players for most of the past century, ranked number 2 or 3 in pure supermarkets(along with Safeway)back when A&P was dominant and number 1 in recent years, excluding Wal-Mart. You probably remember the Market Basket stores, which were Kroger owned for the last 20 years of their existence.

    Veg-o-matic - Probably so! But I think the Canasta Mix packaging was much cooler looking. Maybe someone else had a "Whist Mix". :)

    Didi - There's no signature on the artwork, and all too often the artists on commercial paintings like these were uncredited in those days. As I've said before on here, a look through any issue of Life, Saturday Evening Post, Look, Collier's or other major magazine from the 30's through the 50's, and there are tons of beautifully painted ads to be seen. Television put the kibosh on all that, when the ad dollars moved there. The level of craftsmanship in the ads is often amazing, enabling some folks today to make whole careers of cutting up the old mags and selling the ads on Ebay and in antique stores.

  5. Didn't realize that Loewy was responsible for the logo. It's amazing how durable it's been, esp. since the conversion to the surrounding oval in the early 60s.

    BTW, Kroger entered Atlanta in 1932 with a store on Virginia Ave, near Highland Ave. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the pic in its archives and published it a few years ago. This would have preceded the Piggly-Wiggly acquisition. The purchase of Piggly Wiggly franchises coincided or followed expansion into other markets such as Cleveland, too.

    Kroger and other chains' store counts continued to decline during the 60s and 70s unless they underwent significant geographic growth. Inner city stores were closed and small town and inner ring suburban locations were consolidated with the advent of super stores.

    Kroger's acquisition and expansion efforts ended in the early 60s. They built small beachheads as far north as the Twin Cities and as far East as Erie, PA, but never really developed those hinterland markets, although they remained in them until the 70s and 80s. They also bought a small chain in the Washington DC area but left that market in 1964 without ever having had much presence. They also never really built up Market Basket in LA the way that Acme did with Alpha Beta. Kroger was pretty stagnant in the 60s and lagged behind the competition in developing larger stores. The introduction of SuperX drug stores (typically adjacent to new or remodeled Krogers and later occupying old Kroger stores that were replaced by new superstores) was probably their last innovation. SuperX's market coverage was largely a function of where Kroger invested in the 60s, so that it was a laggard in many places. Kroger maintained close ties to some shopping center developers like DeBartolo into the 60s, but increasingly built freestanding stores, following a pattern that A&P had also adopted.

  6. Dave do you recall what the two chains in Texas were that Kroger acquired in the 1950's? I believe it was Wyatt's in Dallas and another in Houston, but it might be Wyatt's in Houston. I believe Texas was the last expansion of the Kroger banner which has endured over the decades. The expansion to the DC market failed as did a later expansion into the Carolinas in the 1970s. Further expansion in Texas to San Antonio and the Rio Grand Valley would eventually falter as well.

    By the early 70's Kroger had shifted its focus, beginning to invest in markets where it had number 1 or 2 in market share. Thus Chicago and the Wisconsin markets were the early exits from this new strategy. Soon western Michigan would follow. The Atlanta operation would shed virtually all of its Alabama stores, leaving Birmingham and central AL entirely as well as Columbus, GA.

    Kroger stores of the 60s were in some ways laggards. They tended to be darker than most of the competition and often were not larger than some of the 1950s builds they replaced. Kroger movedout of locations that it shared with a competitor, which seems to be the focus of most of the relocations. As the 60s closed, Kroger acknowledged their outdated store design, and late 60s stores were better lit and slightly larger.

    As for SupeRx, Kroger always seemed a bit schitzophrenic with the stores. Most were paired with Kroger or used former Kroger stores. But they had presence in markets that Kroger was limited or absent. Florida and Arizona had a considerable SupeRx presence while SupeRx expanded in Alabama as Kroger retreated. Eventually through Dillon, Fry's would give Kroger a supermarket presence in Arizona and in Florida some SupeRx Food-Drug stores would be built followed by a big investment in A&P Family Mart operation in Florida, briefly bannering as Florida Choice before most were sold to Albertson's and Kash-n-Karry.

  7. Anonymous 1 - I'd love to see the picture of that pre-Piggly Wiggly Kroger in Atlanta. I wasn't aware they had any stores there prior to buying PW out.

    Thanks for the historical notes, which confirm many of the things I've read in researching for the posts. I've always been a bit surprised that that Kroger didn't do more with the Market Basket chain. Im sure distance and the tough competition in L.A. were major factors.

    And I do think that Kroger was much more interested in pairing up the SupeRx stores with Kroger units as opposed to standalones, much the way my hometown Osco stores were most often paired with Jewel supers, though there were a number of standalone Osco units.

    Anonymous 2 (not sure if you're the same person) - You're thinking of Henke & Pillot (Houston) and Childs (Jacksonville, TX), both of which Kroger acquired in 1955. I've mentioned these in the next post which I plan to put on here soon. Once again (whether or not you're the same person as "Anonymous 1") thanks for the great background!

  8. Wyatt's was the Dallas acquisition. Wyatt's Cafeteria was started by Wyatt's Supermarkets prior to the sale to Kroger, and continued independently for many years. Henke & Pillot was the foundation of the Houston division while Child's and Big Store were consolidated into the Dallas operation.

    Kroger entered Washington, DC with the purchase of FoodTown in 1960, and exited in 1964. Market Basket was acquired in 1962 and survived until 1982 when most locations were sold to various SoCal operators, with Ralphs', then owned by fellow Cincinnati chain Federated Department Stores, being the largest buyer-thus many ex-Market Baskets returned to Kroger ownership in 1999.

    In addition to SupeRx in the 1960's, Kroger acquired Louisville, KY based Peyton to distribute general merchandise to the new drugstore operation. Eventually Peyton would expand into the second tier distribution system for Kroger that it is today.

  9. SuperX in Florida had two different lives. The first as Kroger's drug store chain, then in the 80s, resurrected as a supermarket food & drug chain, which was later rebranded as "Florida Choice Food & Drugs" before they completely pulled out of the state.

  10. Ken - Thanks, I'd heard of Wyatt's cafeteria but didn't know they were associated with the food stores. As far as Peyton's goes, my understanding is that they pretty much handle all the general merchandise for the Kroger stores in the central part of the country.

    Jack - I had no idea that the SupeRx name was ever applied to an entire supermarket. Interesting!

  11. The SupeRx Food & Drug stores in Florida differed from Kroger in name only. When A&P put it Family Mart stores in Florida up for sale in I believe 1986, Kroger rebannered the SupeRx and Family Marts to Florida Choice. The SupeRx stores were primarily on the east coast of Florida while Family Mart was concentrated in Central Florida. The SupeRx Food&Drug stores debuted in the early 80's, and after KKR and Haft began their takeover attempt, the Florida Choice operation was put on the market with Albertson's and Kash-n-Karry picking up most sites, but I believe Publix and Goodings landed several in the Orlando area.

    As for Child's and the Big Store, I cannot find any history of the two chains on the internet, so my knowledge is second hand. Krambo's purchase in June 1956 is available in the New York Times archive and I found a site with some photos of old Henke&Pillot stores in Houston.

    One thing notable is that Kroger has been among the bidders for operations in some of the markets the chain exited during the 70's and 80's, but has often withdrawn.
    Among these were the northeast Ohio Tops, Bruno's and BiLo in the south, Dominick's in Chicago, and most recently Roundy's in Wisconsin. When Winn-Dixie put their Texas division on the market, Kroger won the bid, only for the FTC to invalidate the purchase on the basis on market share concentration. In 2001, the FTC did not consider Wal-Mart Supercenters to be a competitor, and their presence in DFW was not considered in determining market share. It's likely that had the WD purchase been approved, Kroger would have picked up Albertson's Oklahoma stores, closing the gap between Texas and Dillon's in Kansas.

  12. Ken - It's actually called "Big Chain" and there's one archtecturally significant store in particular that I've seen -

    Regarding Kroger's attempted purchase of the WD Dallas division, I'll bet if it had been attempted a few years later, the FTC would have approved it based on their recent track record.

  13. nice to find this. My great-grandfather designed the distintive Kroger logo. He was a graphic designer and also designed the logo for Red Cross shoes and other famous brands.

  14. Max - Thanks very much for that info. The Kroger logo certainly has stood the test of time! I'd love to know more about him and his work if you possibly have time to write me at the address in the "profile" section of the blog. Thanks again!