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.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Family Affair at Kroger

As previously mentioned here, one of the most notable grocery industry trends of the 1960’s was the emergence of the supermarket/discount store combination. Usually the supermarket and discount store were separated by a wall and had their own checkstands, adjoining each other only via a common lobby area at the front. In some cases, the layout was open and both grocery and non-foods shared a common checkout area, much the way Wal-Mart Supercenters (on a comparatively gigantic scale) are configured today.

Many of the major chains (with the exception of A&P, a resolute holdout) tried their hand at this – Grand Union (the pioneer – they doubled the size of their Keansburg, NJ supermarket in 1956 to add a non-foods department and soon named the concept Grand-Way), Jewel (with their 1961 acquisition of Boston-based Turn-Style), Food Fair (they bought out J.M Fields in 1961), Stop and Shop (acquired Bradlees in 1961),Safeway (launched Super-S in 1962), Fazio’s (opened their first combination store in Akron in 1967) Red Owl (a Minnesota-based chain who opened their first combo in 1965), Lucky Stores (opened their first “Lucky Discount Center” way back in 1959) and others I’ve undoubtedly missed. Jewel/Turn-Style and Fazio’s were among those who decided to dub their combination units “Family Centers”.

In 1965, Kroger decided to try the idea as well, and the first Kroger Family Centers were opened in 1966. By the end of the following year, the company had seven Family Centers, located in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Kansas. The company also opened a few Thriftown stores, a general merchandise-only concept (with footprints a bit larger than the Family Centers) that to my knowledge never grew past five stores.

In addition to food, the Family Centers carried the normal discount store mix. There was clothing, jewelry, housewares, sporting goods, auto accessories, toys, and that welcome oasis in the bargain-hunting Sahara, a snack bar.

The stores featured common checkout areas and ranged in size from 50,000 to 70,000 square feet, much larger than the standard Kroger footprint of the time. In fact, in the early and mid-60’s Kroger tended to adopt a contrarian attitude regarding store size, actually shrinking their standard supermarket footprints for a time in the interest of efficiency. Over time, competition and the sheer increase in the number of new grocery products available forced them to upsize the stores. Of course, Kroger would later jump in with both feet with the much larger Superstores of the early seventies.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Family Centers, to me, was their construction. The typical Kroger supermarkets of the era were standard brick and glass affairs, often distinguished by an interestingly shaped pylon. The Family Centers were of concrete-wall construction, with aggregate facing on the concrete panels, a long concrete canopy over the entrances, supported by tapered columns, and far less window surface than most stores of the era. The Family Centers had a sturdy, handsome appearance, short on frills.

By 1969, there were 24 Family Centers, with 18 announced for the following year and a goal of 100 units by 1975, which unfortunately was never reached. Most of these were in the Mid-South (Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana) and in Texas. Units in the Houston area went under the name of Henke’s Family Center (short for Henke and Pillot). The store openings, particularly in the 60’s, were a big production, complete with an appearance by a replica of Barney Kroger’s 1883 horse-driven delivery wagon. Since many of the Family Centers went into cities that didn’t previously have Kroger stores, they were enthusiastically received.

For their groceries, that is. By 1972 it had become obvious that carrying such a broad range of general merchandise was not Kroger’s forte, and the decision was made to close the Family Centers, writing off the operation to the tune of $5 million. The "Family Center" name was retained on some Texas and Louisiana stores, although most of their general merchandise was broomed.

Far more exciting things were now happening at Kroger – the Superstore program was underway. “The family” would have new, compelling reasons to shop there.

The exterior photo above is from 1968, the three interior views below from the following year.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Opening of Dixie Square Mall, 1966

The photos above were taken in the fall of 1968, two years after the grand opening of the Dixie Square Mall, located in Harvey, Illinois, a far south suburb of Chicago, on the Dixie Highway (Illinois Route 1) between 151st and 154th streets. Dixie Square, often referred to in its early years as “Dixie Square Shopping Center”, and later on occasionally as “Dixie Mall”, is undoubtedly the most famous “dead mall” of all time. The subject of a new book, a film project, countless websites and more devotees than blackstrap molasses, Dixie Square has become a most unlikely icon of American pop culture.

Why all of this notoriety, one would reasonably ask? There are a number of reasons – first, there’s the simple fact that it was a new, enclosed mall with major anchors (Penneys and Wards), built during an era when many localities were seeing …well, their first new, enclosed malls with major anchors. Secondly, for a medium-sized mall, Dixie Square had some very appealing, high-concept design features. Third, the mall was only open for twelve short years, an extremely brief lifespan. Fourth, amazingly, substantial portions of Dixie Square still stand, more than 30 years after the mall’s closure – a fascinating, albeit dangerous, modern-day ruin.

But the most significant reason, far and away, was the 3 minutes and 30 seconds of celluloid immortality the mall gained in its most celebrated role, a year after it had ceased its primary function. Dixie Square was the site of the famous indoor car chase scene (plus some preliminary hijinks in the mall’s parking lot) in the 1980 film classic The Blues Brothers.

As mentioned, there are some great websites, filled with the fine work of (very brave) modern-day photographic explorers that are dedicated to preserving the history of Dixie Square Mall, so I won’t attempt to go into comprehensive detail here. Instead, I’ll try to touch on some of the major points of Dixie Square’s storied history.

On March 26, 1964 the Blue Island Sun-Standard announced the pending approval by the city of Harvey of a petition to annex the 58 acre site of the rundown Dixie Hi Golf Course for development as a shopping center. On October 12th of that year the annexation was formally approved, and the development group, led by Meyer C. Weiner, broke ground soon afterward.

Architects Hornbach and Steenwyk of Grand Rapids, Michigan were engaged to design the “L-shaped” center, which would feature some 60 stores, including two anchors - Montgomery Ward and Penneys (each with an unattached Auto Center), with a Jewel Food Store, a Walgreens drug store and Illinois’ largest Woolworth’s rounding out the major tenants. The latter two stores would each feature a restaurant, Walgreen’s “Grill Room” and Woolworth’s Harvest House.

The first portion of Dixie Square to operate was the Montgomery Ward store, which opened to the public on October 21, 1965, preceding the rest of the mall by nearly a year. The single-story Wards unit would be Dixie Square’s largest store at 182,000 square feet, including the 20-bay auto center.

On August 31, 1966, with 24 of the planned 60 stores already open and another 12 ready to launch, a dedication ceremony was held, featuring singer Mel Torme and a number of local celebrities. Among these celebrities was WCFL’s “Trooper 36-24-36”, the Top 40 station’s on-air traffic reporter Jane Roberts, a beautiful blonde who frequently made public appearances on the station’s behalf in white short-shorts and the station’s call letters “prominently displayed” on her outfit. (That’d go over well today, eh?) During this time, Jane Roberts was also a regular on WCFL’s legendary “Chickenman” radio segments, a send-up of the wildly popular Batman TV show.

On November 10-12, 1966, Dixie Square’s “official” grand opening was held, hailing the completion of the mall and especially that of its eagerly awaited second anchor, the impressive 2-story, 144,000 square foot Penneys store. Like the dedication ceremony, this too was a grand affair, featuring country music comedians Homer and Jethro, accordionist Art Van Damme (visions of a “Dixie Square Polka” are dancing in my head), and WGN-TV’s "Ringmaster Ned" Locke of the Bozo’s Circus show, a beloved ( and today, fondly remembered) figure of Chicago television, among others.

The real star, though, was the mall itself. Featuring a 60-foot tall tower sign which “(could) be seen from the Illinois Tollway and the Calumet Expressway” outside, sculpture-laden fountains and “ultra-real” tropical foliage (read: artificial) indoors. A truly stunning feature was the “Wonderfalls” display in the mall’s atrium. Engineered and built by Navan, Inc., a division of military aircraft and aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation, the Wonderfalls were tantalizingly described in a Dixie Square grand opening ad in the South End Reporter: “'Flowing' columns emerging magically from the ceiling and dropping 25 feet to disappear mysteriously in a planting of rocks, flowers and trees”…"From a distance, the columns appear to be marble; closer inspection reveals that the columns are composed of liquid falling as droplets in precise paths. Dixie Square’s flowing columns are produced with a special spaceage liquid descending stretched strands of Nylon. The liquid is much heavier than water so that it clings to the strands in droplet shapes as it descends. More than a quarter million droplets are in motion in the five columns at any given moment”.

Through the balance of the sixties, Dixie Square Mall was very successful, drawing large crowds and hosting a wide variety of community events including contests of all sorts, celebrity appearances, Christmas choir programs, Santa appearances (arriving by helicopter, no less!) and all of the wonderful ballyhoo associated with malls of that era.

In 1970, another major anchor was added to Dixie Square. Jewel Companies, Inc., decided to double their investment, so to speak, in Dixie Square with the addition of a Turn-Style discount department store at the rear of the mall. As mentioned, a Jewel Food Store was already in place.
For the city of Harvey, however, things were changing. In 1970, the city was at the approximate midpoint of a huge demographic shift which led to racial tension, described in detail in this Encyclopedia of Chicago article. As the article mentions, Harvey’s “rates of crime, unemployment and poverty were among the suburbs' highest”, and compounding its problems, the city had “lost its industrial and commercial base”. These were hardly ideal conditions for a thriving mall (or much of anything else, for that matter), and Dixie Square’s fortunes would fall precipitously over the next few years.

To make matters worse, the Dixie Square property was the site of a number of sad incidents, including assaults, murder, and the accidental death of a well-known stuntman as he neared completion of a pole-sitting event in the mall’s parking lot. The cumulative effect of these tragic events did much to tarnish Dixie Square’s image.

Despite these setbacks, efforts were made to keep Dixie Square viable. As late as the fall of 1974, such high-profile celebrities as the Harlem Globetrotters (arguably at the peak of their popularity at the time) were booked to entertain mall customers for Dixie Square’s 8th anniversary. Some decorative upgrades were also implemented around this time, including the installation of a huge, funky architectural tent canopy at the mall’s entrance, which is clearly visible in the Blues Brothers sequence. The canopy was designed by a Wisconsin firm called Chrysalis East (a great 70’s name if there ever was one), who provided the massive fabric structures for both permanent installations and special events, including Chicagofest, a series of concerts that were held at Navy Pier in the late 70’s and early 80’s and featured scores of major musical acts ranging from Muddy Waters to Pablo Cruise to Alice Cooper. Coincidentally, the Blues Brothers played there a couple of times (’79 and ’80, I think. Sure wish I’d seen them.), and Sinatra played there in 1982 (Really wish I’d seen him. I did see Cheap Trick, though. How’s that for varied musical taste?).

These efforts did little to slow Dixie Square’s downward slide, and by the mid-70’s vacancies starred to appear, with increasing frequency as time passed. The beginning of the end came on August 30, 1976 when Montgomery Ward announced the closing of its Dixie Square store, effective October 4th. The Southtown Economist quoted the Wards district manager as follows: “Over the past several years we have invested heavily in the nearby Evergreen Park, Munster and Matteson stores, all within a five-mile radius of the Harvey store”. It would become a familiar mantra as other chains began to pull out of Dixie Square in droves. In early 1977, the Karoll’s Men’s Store, pictured above, closed and moved to nearby Homewood. Polk Bros. had already closed – steering their customers to (a good bit further away) Burbank.

One of the strangest aspects of Dixie Square’s demise had to do with the Turn-Style store. With its discount pricing approach, one could have easily expected the Dixie Square Turn-Style to do strong business in light of the area’s declining median income. Problem was, the store was located in the back of the mall with no sight line from Dixie Highway. Out of sight, apparently it was out of customers’ minds as well, as the intriguing advertisement below (from 1972, when the store was a mere two years old) tried to address. When Jewel decided to shutter the Turn-Style operation in 1978, most of the stores went to the May Company for conversion to Venture stores. Sadly but understandably, May passed on the Dixie Square location.

In January 1978, the other shoe dropped when the Penneys store (known of course as JCPenney by this time) closed, its customers referred to the year and a half old Orland Square Mall Penneys. A full year later, closeout merchandise from area JCPenney stores was hauled into the Dixie Square location for one final blowout sale, nicknamed all-too-appropriately “Dixie’s Last Gasp”. The final holdouts were Jewel and Walgreens, both of whom pulled out in mid-1979. Dixie Square Mall passed into history, likely to soon to be forgotten.

Until Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and director John Landis came along. Aykroyd and Belushi, two members of the original Saturday Night Live cast (and ardent Blues fans), had developed the concept for “The Blues Brothers” through a series of skits on the show starting in 1976. What appeared at the start to be mostly a comedy effort quickly gained a measure of musical credibility as the pair assembled a crack group of legendary session players, including guitarist Steve Cropper, saxophonist “Blue” Lou Marini, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and other top-flight musicians. And Belushi and Aykroyd turned out to be decent singers as well, or were at least a good fit for the songs they picked. Of course, humor was still a huge part of the equation, with the funky sunglasses, the “fercocter” suits (That description is from the movie, and I have no idea if it’s vulgar or not. Or even if it’s spelled correctly.), and the crazy stage moves. By the time their record album Briefcase Full of Blues came out in 1978, they were a national sensation. The movie project was announced soon afterward.

The script (written by Aykroyd and Landis) called for an indoor chase scene, and since the story was set in Chicago, and much of the actual shooting took place there, Dixie Square’s availability came at the perfect time. Of course, the planters, benches and much of the rest of the décor were gone, replaced with trellises, carts and other items that would easily break away when hit by the cars. The Jewel Food Store was restocked, at least in front of the camera’s eye, and the mall’s store signs were all relit. A number of retailers showed up in the “fictional Dixie Square” that weren’t part of the actual mall, including an Oldsmobile dealership. It’s my understanding that the Dixie Square Penneys store sported the 1960’s logo (a true classic and one of my all time favorites) throughout its entire existence, and that the signs were pulled down after the store closed. For the purposes of the filming, the company supplied the new (and still current) “JCPenney” logo signage, presumably to maximize promotional value. Most notably, since Walgreens didn’t want to be associated with the film (Guess it didn’t fit their concept of a “drive-thru” pharmacy! Ok, I’ll go back to my room.), the space was taken by a willing Toys “R” Us.
Living in the Chicago area and being in high school at the time, the excitement I saw surrounding the film was palpable. On several occasions, the local news covered the filming as it progressed around town, with such news flashes as “Film crew damages homeowner’s sidewalk!” and other vitally important stories. It all served to build interest, and we awaited the movie’s Summer 1980 release with bated breath.

We weren’t disappointed. It had a great story, musical legends including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway, a hilarious role from Carrie Fisher (after the very serious Princess Leia) and great comedic actors including John Candy, but topped of course by Belushi and Aykroyd. For those of us from Chicago, it held a special charm with so many local icons forming the backdrop of the movie – Wrigley Field, the CTA, Lower Wacker Drive, the Civic (Daley)Center, and on and on. Oh, and a great chase scene filmed inside some mall I’d never heard least not yet.

“The Blues Brothers” stands as a true modern classic, shown frequently on cable TV and available on DVD. In 1998, it spawned a (not exactly classic) sequel. Many dreams and schemes for the redevelopment of Dixie Square Mall have been floated over the years, some as recently as 2007. But it still sits there, awaiting its own sequel - that elusive combination of civic vision and corporate investment to return to Harvey what it once had – a safe, up-to-date shopping center.

In the meantime, of course, the legend of Dixie Square Mall continues to grow.

A very special thanks goes to Dan Steenwyk, Paul McVay and Michael Brown for making these photos available. All of the photos are © 1966 by Steenwyk Architects, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Top to bottom, the photos can be described as follows: An angled view of the Penneys and Walgreens stores at the main entrance to the mall, a square-on view of the Penneys entrance, an interior view looking towards Penneys’ inside entrance, the wonderful Wonderfalls, a close-up of the mall entrance between the Penneys and Walgreens, a close-up of another mall entrance, (the Wards store is to the right, and the Baskin-Robbins sign can be seen peeking out of the left edge), the Wards inside entrance with some impressive metalwork (on the impressive fountains), and the Wards Auto Center against the chilly fall evening sky.

Below are some early newspaper ads, including one that puzzled me at first. The December 1965 “Sidewalk Superintendents Wanted” ad is probably not a solicitation for supervisory help as I thought at first glance, but instead a nudge to the curious to come out and watch the mall’s construction progress, hopefully spreading the exciting word afterward. In today’s environment of litigation and OSHA standards this would be a definite no-no today. The second ad is for the October 1965 Montgomery Ward grand opening, the third from November 1966’s official Dixie Square Mall grand opening, and the last, the somewhat desperate Turn-Style ad referenced above.

Some additional notes: A couple folks have informed me that the interior scene where the cars crash into the Jewel Food Store was actually filmed inside the Penneys store, mocked up to look like an interior entrance for Jewel. Apparently this particular Jewel did not have a major inside entrance from the mall. I would guess the film crew pulled down the outside "JEWEL" signage and reinstalled it inside for filming. Also, for an up-to-the-minute (or at least up to this past January 11) look at Dixie Square, Jon Revelle has kindly sent along links to some excellent new photos and a great video (complete with soundtrack - and snow!).

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

…and welcome as we kick off a new year of Pleasant Family Shopping, where we take a look at those places you’ll remember all your lives, though most have changed. Most forever, not for better, some are flea markets now, but some remain. I know you’ll often stop and think about them, and when you do, please stop by! (Apologies to Lennon and McCartney.)

Our subject is retail chain stores of the past – mainly old discount stores and supermarkets, but we throw in a department store chain here and there and take an occasional trip to the mall just for fun. We discuss the history of the companies behind the stores and of course, those individual store locations that were the site of fond memories for so many of us. Best of all are the photos - scenes from life back in the day, whenever that day may have been – the storefronts, the store interiors, the people who worked and shopped there, and usually at least one guy wearing a tie.

And as you can see, our New Year’s Eve party is still goin’ on! We’ve stashed Mom and Dad’s Mantovani, Percy Faith and Andre Kostalanetz albums in the cabinet, and we’re spinning The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Cyrkle (must be what they’re dancing to right now) and The Mamas and the Papas, all on that tiny portable record player. Later on we’ll play the new Troggs 45, if we can find that darned little plastic insert ring. We're stocked up on Coke and Canada Dry Wink. And dig our new game – Milton Bradley’s Twister, the game that ties you up in knots! (The Twister TV commercial was pretty danceable itself. It ran for years!)

This great scene is a 1966 Woolworth’s publicity shot, officially captioned as follows: “These typical teenagers are completely clothed in apparel from Woolworth’s ready-to-wear and accessory departments. The phonograph, television, records, musical instruments, games, novelties and “rumpus room” decorations also came from Woolworth’s. By catering to the youth market, our stores have become “in” places.”

“In”, and soon to be "far out!"