Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Very Fashionable Kroger, 1966

These photos, taken in 1966, show the Kroger location at Dover Center and Oviatt Road in Bay Village, Ohio, an affluent suburb of Cleveland. The store had just reopened after a brief closure for remodeling. First is a color shot of the store’s façade, followed by alternating black-and-white and color photos that provide a “before and after” look at the various departments.

The story of Kroger Bay Village involves one of the earlier attempts by a major supermarket chain at molding the “look and feel” of an entire store to fit the preferences of a specific demographic, as opposed to mere promotional displays. The remodeling came about as a result of a joint effort between Kroger, Progressive Grocer magazine, and the Reuben H. Donnelley Corporation, a company best known as a major publisher of Bell System telephone directories. Progressive Grocer was in the midst of its landmark “Consumer Dynamics” study, the main purpose of which was to help supermarkets identify and respond to demographic characteristics of their shoppers. Ultimately a series of categories, based on age, marital status, income levels and ethnicity was arrived at. To make (an extremely) long story short, it was concluded that supermarket chains would be wise to maintain a complete selection across all demographics, yet to tailor each individual location with the predominant local demographic in mind. To borrow an example from another study, while all Kroger stores might maintain a minimum inventory of a particular exotic vegetable on an upper shelf, higher income area stores would carry it in quantity, displaying it more prominently.

Participating in the study, Kroger decided to offer their Cleveland division as a guinea pig, with the intent of deploying the Consumer Dynamics Study recommendations in select stores identified as serving a predominant demographic group. An exhaustive study based on census data and the Donnelley firm’s market research was carried out, and the Cleveland area was segmented into the above-mentioned categories. A high income area store, the Bay Village Kroger, was chosen first.

Ironically, the Bay Village store was not even two years old, having opened in August 1964 (the décor package was essentially the same as the previously featured Dallas NorthPark Kroger). The study research revealed that while Kroger enjoyed a good reputation in the area, residents assumed (correctly) that the local store was typical in every way, with nothing to distinguish it from the average relatively new Kroger. The upshot of this (not stated in the PG article), as nice as the store may have been, was that Kroger was potentially vulnerable in the event an upscale competitor moved into the area.

It was decided that the Bay Village Kroger undergo remodeling, to provide a more upscale, individual look, while maintaining the store’s basic identity as a Kroger. Greenery on the sidewalks, special lighting, carpeting in select areas, an expansion of the dairy, meat and bakery areas and the pièce de résistance – a new International Foods department, were implemented. “Carryout boys” were added, outfitted in sharp light blue blazers with brass buttons and bowties. Additionally, the store was given a distinct identity – it was referred to henceforth in all advertising as “Kroger of Bay Village”.

It worked. Sales were up in all departments, with a 35% overall increase in the first four weeks versus the previous year’s figures. Employees were fired up about the changes – “After being with Kroger for 15 years, I’ve never seen a remodeling that made such an impact on customers. Even the employees seem more cheerful”. Customers approved as well – “Items seem better arranged. Related things are now in the same sections. The International Foods are wonderful, but I doubt I can trust my husband. He’ll leave his whole paycheck there.” (Um, okay...)

Long term, it’s conceivable that this store influenced Kroger on its journey from generally conservative store design to the much more stylish Superstores of the early 70’s. Sadly, Kroger folded its tent in the Northeast Ohio area in 1984, a move still lamented by many.

Top to bottom, the photos show (1) the store exterior, (2, 3) the entrance/checkout area, sporting a new beamed ceiling with recessed lighting and blue/green carpeting (wonder how that stood up to Cleveland area winters?), and the toiletries area in the background with new elegant little lights, (4,5) the bakery area, with frozen bakery items now added (remember, they just taste expensive), (6,7) meats, expanded to add more cold cuts and a very heavy beamed canopy, suspended by chains (King Arthur would have felt at home in this department), and (8,9) produce (more new elegant little lights). Then, of course, is the true Cinderella story - where the nondescript pumpkin of a picnic goods section was transformed into a gleaming coach – the International Foods area (10,11), with a great, outrageous wall treatment, more blue/green carpeting and a chandelier that I find myself seriously digging. Gosh, I could spend my whole paycheck there!

Below are a few additional views – close-ups of the toiletries department, canned goods and baby items areas. Lastly is the “new items” area, a new feature introduced in the remodeling (with a mannequin, no less!). Featured that week were products from Minneapolis-based arch competitors Pillsbury and Betty Crocker, trademarks now long since owned by the same company, General Mills.

18 comments:

  1. Where do you find these pictures? They are great!!! Once you're done with the superstore era, may I suggest you start documenting A&P interiors?

    _Dan

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  2. I am guessing these photos are from Dave's standby, The Progressive Grocer. I love that magazine. Always some spectacular photos. BTW, what is up with the lady wearing that splashy floral print (or is it fruit) dress. Mama mia, it's awful, even for the 60s.

    I grew up in Cleveland. At least until I was nine and we visited a lot of suburbs some of them middle class (Euclid, Brunswick, Garfield) and some kind of upscale (Lakewood, Beachwood, Rocky River) and I don't recall Bay Village. Must not have had any people to visit there. I have to look at it on a map to get a sense of where it is located.

    These are great pictures and a great story though in my residence of birth no less.

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  3. An excellent look a mid-century mod, but this has some elements that foreshadow the upcoming SuperStore design, the wooden beams, though not as rustic, for example.

    Combine some interior elements here with the exterior of a Family Center, and you have the makings of a Kroger SuperStore some 6 years prior to its debut.

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  4. In the last picture I noticed the "Kroger of Bay Village" signage. Kroger does that in most of its stores in the Columbus area, especially the ones out in the 'burbs.

    -Dan

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  5. Kroger probably offered up the Cleveland Division because they had had a long slide in market share. For all the success at Bay Village (which lasted until Kroger left the area in the 70s) they closed quite a few stores not long after.

    Kroger's competition in Cleveland consisted of a reviving Fisher/Fazio chain, the dynamic Pick-n-Pay chain, and very strong local co-ops, particularly Stop-n-Shop, whose stores competed head to head with major chains. All of these chains were stronger in the perishables areas than Kroger, which did boneheaded things like selling mostly prewrapped produce. Fisher-Fazio used a fairly uniform look in its remodels and new stores (many old Fisher stores got a new look after the 1965 acquisition by the Fazio-related interests), but incorporated wood, brick, and other materials novel to supermarkets. Pick-n-Pay had simpler design packages but tended to tailor remodels to local markets, while Stop-n-Shop's operators had considerable latitude. By comparison with these chains, Kroger and A&P stores seemed ordinary and uniform within each chain. This store seems to have overcome some of that, but it would have been stuck with Kroger's lackluster perishables and lack of service departments.

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  6. Heh; the K-R-O-G-E-R lettering along the front of the building reminds me rather of a line of peppermint Life Savers. Although this particular supermarket was a typical 1960s store in many respects, there are definitely a number of elements that would be developed to further potential in the decade ahead.

    As far as retail history goes, Kroger is a favorite subject of mine: I grew up shopping there in the 1980s and 1990s, and I had always been curious as to what their store interiors had looked like in the past. I've thoroughly enjoyed the last few features here, and would love to see some period photos from the "superstore" era!

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  7. Ghost of SteinbergsJanuary 27, 2009 at 8:32 PM

    Real cool pics. Bravo for your finding and your text. Really reflects also what we had here in the Montreal area by the end of 50s and during the 60s (especially Steinberg's and some Dominion stores...)

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  8. Kroger's competition in Cleveland consisted of a reviving Fisher/Fazio chain, the dynamic Pick-n-Pay chain, and very strong local co-ops, particularly Stop-n-Shop, whose stores competed head to head with major chains.

    Also local chains Dave's and Heinen's which are still around and created strong local ties and services.

    Wow, I never thought about it before but the Cleveland area had tons of competition for grocery stores!

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  9. Dave's was just a single Bi-Rite on Payne Ave in the 60s and Heinen's didn't really expand beyond the "Heights" area and Pepper Pike until later in the decade.

    Most cities had much more competition than is the case now. You had national chains like Kroger, A&P, and Safeway with stores covering huge chunks of the country, other large chains covering big regions like Acme, Winn-Dixie, National, & Colonial, First National, Grand Union, etc., and many strong local chains like Jewel in Chicago, Thorofare in Pittsburgh and Penn Fruit in Philly. Many places had strong voluntray co-ops, whereas this is no longer very true. Chains also were more willing to be rather minor players to keep a large regional system--DC had small representations of chains like Acme and Food Fair, as well as only middling representation from A&P and Grand Union, yet, even then Giant and Safeway had close to half the market share. Most cities had at least one national chain like Kroger or A&P, often a super-regional like National or Acme, and a number of local chains and possibly IGA or a local co-op.

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  10. Anonymous - These are from the magazine article I mentioned in the post. I hope to do a series on A&P during this, their 150th year. Thanks!

    Didi- Glad to cover your hometown! Lots of retail history there.

    Ken - Good theory on the combination of elements from this store with the Family Centers as a precursor to the Superstores. Makes sense to me!

    Dan - I've seen a lot of that in Kroger stores in more upscale areas.

    Anonymous - Thanks for that in-depth look at the Cleveland market of the day. Interesting comments on Kroger's produce and service departments. Seems as if they made major efforts to address those a bit later on. The Fazio's stores of the late sixties were visually striking and had to have an effect on Kroger's market share.

    Andrew - I agree on the "Life Savers" thing - at least the "O"! Thanks, and glad you're enjoying them!

    G of S - From what I've seen from your pics of the Steinberg's stores, they were very impressive, and Dominion was a class act as well. I understand the Dominion name is being phased out, a real shame.

    Anonymous - It is interesting how some chains (who were tops in their home markets) hung in there in more distant markets even though they were third, fourth or lower in the pecking order. Acme and Food Fair are a great example.

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  11. Ghost of Steinberg'sFebruary 4, 2009 at 7:06 AM

    Hello Dave,

    Thanks for the comment. Just to tell you, Dominion is now gone completely in Toronto, replaced by Metro... (There is a Dominion food store chain in Newfoundland, which is run by Loblaws, as they kept the old chain's name on their storefront).

    And coincidentally speaking, Metro did purchase about 40 "Steinberg's" store when the chain closed in 1992.

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  12. The SupeRx-Drug World connection explains how a nearby former 1950s build Kroger(with 1970s superstore remodel) became a Drug World in the late 80s or early 90s. It it stayed Drug World until the building was leveled and replaced with a freestanding CVS around the time CVS acquired Revco.

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  13. Claude - Thanks for update on Dominion - such a great name and history, too bad it's gone!

    Ken - I'm assuming that's in Dalton, right?

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  14. Coming in late in this discussion, but growing up in Cleveland in the 1960s and 1970s, Kroger was really looked down upon and considered a down market store.

    The big locals as someone else pointed out were Heinen's (which was always considered Cadillac of Cleveland's grocery store chains), Pick n' Pay, Fisher Fazio's and the Stop n' Shop chain, which was a confederation of family owned stores by the Rini, Russo, Giaunta (sic) families.

    But all of Cleveland's crocery store chains were union shops, and it wasn't until the mid 1970s that they were open past noon on Saturday, and back then never on Sundays.

    But Kroger? You couldn't pay my mother to walk into one. And I still hate shopping at Kroger today. They may cheap prices, but there is something about "Krogering" that means you've gone down to the lowest common denominator.

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  15. I drove past this shopping center today. Unfortunately it has undergone drastic remodeling since Kroger was here, and whatever part of the plaza Kroger occupied has been divided up into smaller shops. I was going to photograph it to do a "then and now", but I couldn't even tell WHERE the Kroger store had been.

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  16. CoolCookie - I've heard quite a number of good things about Heinen's. The Kroger stores in my experience have been considerably nicer than what you describe, but I'm sure there were reasons behind their exit from the Cleveland market - obviously the connection with local customers didn't hold. Thanks!

    Blog Reader - That seems to be the case with many older shopping centers. Sorry to hear that one's no longer recognizable. At the time of these photos it was considered the premier unit in the chain.

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  17. Wow! Look at all the cartons of cigarettes by the checkout lanes where anybody could just grab one and place it on the conveyor belt. I remember doing this for my dad many times at the store. Now they are under lock and key...of course they are $70 a carton now. My how times have changed.

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  18. I love your old Kroger photos. Can anyone give me any information on a Kroger store that once existed in Ravenna, Ohio. Thanks!

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