Saturday, May 29, 2010

Good, Better, Best...at Wards!

Thought I’d give linear thinking another shot and resume this long-suspended series on the history of Montgomery Ward. We left Wards just prior to 1960, when they were a couple of years into an exciting new building program, opening sharp-looking stores in new shopping centers all over America. This burst of activity followed a disastrous 17-year period in which the company opened not a single new store, causing Wards to utterly miss out on the first decade of the fabled “postwar boom”. In 1941, Wards was a strong number two in the world of non-grocery retail, with sales just slightly trailing Sears. At the end of Wards’ new store drought in 1958, Sears’ sales were four times those of Wards, and the number two crown (the “shopping salutatorian”, if you will) passed to J.C. Penney Company, leaving Wards in a distant third place. But things were changing now, and though the road would prove to be difficult, at least they were back in the game.

This 1963 publicity photo shows a popular marketing device employed by the national full-line department stores (i.e.: Sears, Penneys and Wards) in the 60’s and 70’s – the “Good, Better, Best” approach. More or less self-explanatory, in essence it meant offering the same basic item in three different grades of materials, as a means of appealing to shoppers of all budgets. That year, Wards made it easy by going to color-coded labeling – red for good, blue for better, gold for best. Virtually everything in their stores - from clothing to paint to household items such as rugs and linens – was sold under this label format. The young woman in blue is picking out a shirt, presumably for her husband, or perhaps boyfriend or fianc√©. I see she’s holding the gold-labeled “best” version. An excellent choice – I mean, he’s worth it, right?

If he’s not, I’d suggest she shop at a place that doesn’t have “good, better, best” labeling!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Trip to the Jewel Grand Bazaar

It happened only once, so despite the passage of time it stands out in my memory. It was the night our family broke from the routine. The night we ventured out and tried something new. The night we threw our grocery-shopping inhibitions to the wind. It was The Night of the Jewel Roadtrip.

Sure, we had a Jewel Food Store right in the center of town. It was a late-fifties remodel, complete with the famous Jewel porcelain storefront and a quaint tin-tiled ceiling. We didn’t shop there often, however, because in the next town, some seven minutes away if you took your time, was a much larger, more modern Jewel-Osco food and drug combination store. With its far greater selection, most of our family’s food dollars (save for the occasional trip to Dominick’s) were spent there.

One fall evening, in 1977 to the best of my recollection, the folks told my brothers and I to load up into the car (a powder-blue Ford Torino station wagon – yes, we bought the dream), we were going grocery shopping at a new store near downtown Chicago (?!). To cut short the collective groan, they offered an explanation – this was a special store, different from what we were used to, with unique stuff and more of it. It was a “Super Jewel” or something like that. Suddenly, the prospect of getting out of studying on that school night finally registered – “Sounds really cool, Mom!”

So as night fell we drove, into the city, to the corner of 54th and Pulaski, whereupon we pulled into the fairly full parking lot of a large retail store. The familiar orange Jewel signage sported an unfamiliar name- “Jewel Grand Bazaar”. Wow! And different it was – sort of a combination of quasi-European Market Village (little mini-shops, faux Euro-decor with orange stripes everywhere) and sprawling warehouse (huge quantities of product in open-front wire cages). “Bazaar”, indeed!

Probably the most memorable aspect of that shopping experience (beside the store’s prime selection of Mad Magazine paperbacks, which was worth the long roundtrip in itself) was our first exposure to Jewel’s huge new “generic” product line, which at that time hadn’t been rolled out to the company’s entire store lineup yet. The generics were Jewel’s response to the economic travails of the late 70’s, when inflation seemed to reduce Americans’ purchasing power by the week. It was a “no-frills”, rock-bottom price product line, and it seemed to cover nearly every packaged food category imaginable. The traditional Jewel store brand names – Mary Dunbar, Bluebrook and Cherry Valley (long-standing house brands that were about to be phased out, replaced with a unified “Jewel” brand) , with their bright, colorful labels were tossed aside in favor of an austere look – plain white labels on uncoated paper stock and military style stenciled-look lettering. The only “decorative” element was a bi-colored stripe – black and olive drab. Now every suburban housewife could realize her dream – a pantry full of C-rations! Our family stocked up big time.

On September 27, 1973, the first Jewel Grand Bazaar store opened at 5320 South Pulaski Road in Chicago. At 90,000 square feet, the new store was nearly double the size of the typical Jewel-Osco store. The Grand Bazaar concept, more than two years in the making, “present(ed) new merchandising techniques to shoppers”, with “…wide use of palletized basket presentations in the customer shopping area”, as described in a Chicago Tribune article. As such, Jewel was one of the first major supermarket retailers to introduce the concept of buying in bulk. As mentioned, among the Bazaar’s most notable features were its “shops within the store”, including the Chef’s Kitchen (a name already in use by Jewel) prepared foods section, a bake shop, the “Pier 14” fresh seafood area, and the “Cheese Chalet” (later called the “Country Cheese Shop”), where quarter-ton blocks of Wisconsin Cheddar were routinely wheeled in, to be parceled off in small wedges for delighted customers.

The Grand Bazaars were loosely based on the Hypermarch√© (Hypermarket) concept, which gained significant popularity in Europe starting in the 1970’s. A typical European Hypermarket was a very big store, 200,000 square feet or more, offering a large selection of general merchandise and a full supermarket lineup, with many heavier-volume items sold in bulk. Influenced by this, Jewel had indeed begun development of a Hypermarket idea of its own at the time, although it never came to fruition. At 90,000 square feet and carrying a more limited selection of general merchandise, the Jewel-Osco Grand Bazaars at least qualified, according to Chicago Tribune business columnist George Lazarus, for the title “hypergrocery”. When you consider that many of the Grand Bazaars were coupled with a (Jewel-owned) Turn-Style discount store, they were at least close to the mark.

One pioneering aspect of the Grand Bazaars was the use of electronic checkstands, utilizing “20 electronic itemizing stations” with “four separate stations for payment”. Electronic cash registers were very much a new thing for Jewel (and anyone else fortunate enough to have them yet) in 1973, and it would be a couple more years before the UPC (Universal Product Code) system was fully in place. There were also “cart-to-car” pickup systems in the Bazaar stores, which was in one sense a holdover from a more service-oriented era. And in response to the growing “consumerist” movement of the day, each Bazaar featured a “Consumer Corner” staffed with its own full-time home economist, ready and willing to provide a sympathetic ear and sound advice. (“Well you know, I’ve had issues with shish kabob since high school…”)

Within six months of opening, the Pulaski Road Grand Bazaar was drawing 30,000 customers weekly and was projected to hit $20 million a year in sales according to Donald Perkins, Jewel’s highly-respected chairman, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune. The store’s Osco Drug unit, Perkins said, was the highest grossing in the Chicago area. The press weighed in favorably as well - Trib columnist George Lazarus pronounced the Grand Bazaars “an enormous success”, and mentioned that “according to sources”, Jewel had plans in place to have 12 to 15 Grand Bazaars operating at some point. Lazarus relayed an exciting finding of Jewel management – “The beautiful part of the Grand Bazaar story is that these stores aren’t taking much, if any, business away from other Jewel and Osco stores.”

Two additional Grand Bazaars opened in the summer of 1974, on 87th Street at the Dan Ryan Expressway and at the intersection of Grand and Kostner Avenues. Within the next few years, other Grand Bazaars would follow – 115th and Halsted, Rockford, Franklin Park and even in Milwaukee, a new Jewel market at the time, where the company wisely featured local favorite Meurer Bakery in place of their standard Bake Shop.

One of the grandest Grand Bazaar openings ended up being one of the last. In February 1977, the seventh Jewel Grand Bazaar opened up as part of the first phase of The Brickyard, a rare in-city mall project that received much laudatory press for that very fact. The rise, fall and hoped-for comeback of The Brickyard is well-documented on this recent Labelscar post.

By the end of the 1970’s, the Grand Bazaar concept seemed to just fade away. After 1978, Jewel’s annual reports are silent on the subject. One can assume that they took away certain lessons from the venture and just moved on – larger food/drug combination stores were the way to go, bulk bins of product, not so much. Several of the stores continued to operate for years with Grand Bazaar signage still in place, including the Franklin Park store where I shopped a number of times in the mid-80’s, but for all intents and purposes they were standard Jewel-Osco stores by then – no bulk bins, no cheese block, no home economist. The Rockford store was converted to a “Magna” no-frills warehouse store. Today, some of the stores live on as Jewel-Oscos, the Franklin Park unit being a nicely renovated example.

When I left the Chicago area in 1987, the “Generics” line was still available, although it had greatly diminished in popularity in those more prosperous times. At some point it was phased out, although a number of deep-discount grocery stores continue to stock plain-jane staple goods today. Though the economy of the last few years could arguably be compared to that of the late 70’s, generic products have not made a comeback in this age of brand power. The major chains have wisely taken the cue, ramping up their store brands’ quality and label-appeal, and everything I’ve read says that strategy is paying off handsomely. Now if they could only bring back those home economists…

The photos above are all 1970’s Jewel publicity shots, and the stylized Grand Bazaar font and “J” logo can be seen in several of them. The first photo, from 1974, shows the brand new Grand Bazaar at 87th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway. Photos 2 through 10 are all from the Brickyard Mall location, 1977. The camera and cosmetics department views show the typical interior design scheme of late 70’s/early 80’s Osco Drug stores. The black and white photo, from 1974, shows the Milwaukee location, with the Meurer Bakery featured prominently. Next is a 1975 aerial view of the Grand and Kostner store, with good neighbor Turn-Style to the right. The last two photos, from 1973, feature the very first Jewel Grand Bazaar at 54th and Pulaski, where some smart shoppers have selected giant boxes of Tide, "the washday miracle", a photogenic consumer product if there ever was one. This is the store that my family and I visited on that fateful evening described above.

Below, from 1977, is a close-up view of some of the Jewel Generics product line. You’ll notice that the ladies in the background have adopted “generic” facial expressions, in keeping with the spirit of things.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Room With The Finast View

Here’s an idyllic view of the model 1957 kitchen. Everything is perfect - the gleaming, modern dishwasher, the sleek metal cabinetry and Formica, the diamond-pattern curtains – right down to the pink Telechron clock on the wall.

The table and counters are laden with the finest Finast foods – proud house brand of First National Stores, the late, great New England (and select other regions) supermarket chain. In later years the stores themselves would be emblazoned with the Finast name.

Now walk over to the sink, throw open the curtains, and lo, there it stands in plain sight – the distinguished edifice from whence these culinary treasures came.

“A mocked-up scene!” you insist.

Well, of course. But we can dream, can’t we?