Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fighting Inflation at Alpha Beta

Here’s a wonderful set of photos featuring two stores from one of Southern California’s most fondly remembered supermarket chains – the late, lamented Alpha Beta. The photos were taken in the early 70’s by Werner Weiss, webmaster of the Yesterland website, a superb tribute to the early years of Disneyland. Yesterland, one of the most celebrated and influential nostalgia sites on the web, marked its 20th anniversary online last year. Though Alpha Beta had stores all over SoCal (and several in other regions as well), these were both located in “The O.C.” – Orange County, Alpha Beta’s home turf.

What can you say about the store in the first photo, other than it was a stone cold 1950’s classic? Opened in June, 1958 in the Hillview section of Santa Ana, at 17th Street and Tustin Avenue, this store, with its massive pylon and iconic “Alphy” sign, perfectly exuded the optimism, excitement and humor of the “anything is possible” postwar Southern California. The store didn’t seem much worse for wear sixteen years later, in 1974, when this photo was shot, but you’d have to think it looked more natural with a parking lot full of tailfins.

The rest of the photos are interior shots from the Alpha Beta store in Huntington Beach, at the corner of Brookhurst Street and Hamilton Avenue. I haven’t been able to verify the exact opening year of this store (Alpha Beta’s “No. 126”), but according to Werner, who worked there in college and took these photos in the fall of 1972, it was a new store then. The store sports the “ranch style” roofline that Alpha Beta had favored since the mid-sixties.

What strikes me the most about these photos, even the one of the older store, is how reflective the scenes are of 1972-74 American life, due to the overwhelming presence of one word - “discount” – plastered all over the interior of the store, and in huge letters across the storefront windows.

These were the years when new words and phrases began to creep their way into dinner table conversations across the country: “inflation”, “cost of living” and “Consumer Price Index”, for example, because these things were directly affecting what was on the dinner table. It was an era of rampant, unprecedented inflation, when consumer dollars seemed to shrink by the week. Despite some fairly extreme governmental steps taken to stem the tide (a wage-price freeze, dollar devaluation, etc.), it continued for years.

The scene that evokes this strongest for me personally is in the fifth photo down, the “new ideas” display, with boxes of Tuna Helper, in three glorious flavors, clearly visible on the second shelf. My family ate so much of this stuff (and its sister meal enhancer, Hamburger Helper) in those years that I still feel General Mills should have awarded us a walnut plaque with a golden Betty Crocker spoon mounted to it.

In response to the situation, the major supermarket chains, including such Western-based heavyweights as Safeway, welterweights such as Albertsons, and more regionalized operations like Alpha Beta (then a division of a middleweight, Philly-based Acme Markets) practically fell over themselves trying to attach the word “discount” to their storied names. Certainly this was a national trend, however, with appended names galore - Acme “Super Saver” stores, Food Fair’s accelerated conversion to “Pantry Pride Discount Foods”, and numerous others. Then there was A&P’s disastrous WEO (“Where Economy Originates”) program, but that’s a saga unto itself.

But there had been a precedent for this not that many years before, however. The early 70’s weren’t the first time the major food chains were forced to respond to an economic pinch. There was a dry run of sorts in the fall of 1966, when consumer complaints about supermarket pricing galvanized into a national movement, with boycotts occurring at stores across the country. Numerous press photos exist of bouffanted housewives carrying protest signs, a scene that led some in the press to coin the unfortunate term “girlcott” (Ugh.) to describe the situation.

The 1966 boycotts were short-lived, but in their aftermath, a number of chains experimented with standalone discount formats. Alpha Beta was one of them, with their experimental “Fad” (“food at discount” – nifty, right?) stores. Concerned about price competitiveness but unwilling to risk the Alpha Beta name on a discount venture, the first Fad store, a converted Alpha Beta unit, was opened in Costa Mesa in April 1967.

The location was chosen for its very close proximity to another Alpha Beta store, allowing the company to compare shopping patterns at the two stores and to answer the following questions, as outlined in Esther Cramer’s great book The Alpha Beta Story: “Would the housewife change her shopping habits if operating hours were reduced and games and giveaways were eliminated? Would the volume of sales increase to the necessary level if prices were lowered?” The answers, as it turned out, were “yes”.

As a result, three additional Fad stores were opened that year, followed by yet three more in 1968. Most importantly, it led to a change in pricing policy for the main Alpha Beta stores, which was rolled out in two phases – discounting of all health and beauty items effective in September 1967, and discounting across the entire store effective New Year’s Day 1968. Trading stamps and other promotional gimmicks were dropped, and even the famous tagline on their signs was changed, from “First in Foods” to “Best for Less”. In September 1971, having applied the lessons learned, the Fad name was discontinued and the (by then 11) Fad stores were converted to garden variety Alpha Betas.

So bargain-based grocery shopping turned out to be anything but a fad.

My thanks again to Werner Weiss for letting me know about his wonderful photos, and to the Orange County Archives for making them available. And for those who are curious about what the Fad stores looked like, here’s a typical example from a circa 1967 Alpha Beta Acme Markets promotional photo.