Sunday, September 16, 2007

Safeway's Super S Story

In the early 1960’s, several leading supermarket chains began a concerted effort to augment their traditionally razor-thin grocery margins by greatly increasing their offering of non-food items. Typically, this category included outdoor accessories, sporting goods, cameras, small appliances, basic clothing and a host of other items, which were usually marked-up at more than twice the rate of food products.

This trend was accelerated with the introduction of the “food/drug combination store” – essentially two adjoining stores - by such chains as Albertsons of Boise, Idaho and Jewel Food Stores of Chicago in the opening years of the decade. Safeway, far larger than either of these two companies, jumped into the fray in October 1962 with the establishment of their “Super S” division. The Super S stores would be newly constructed units, built in conjunction with an adjoining new Safeway. The two stores would share an entrance portal between them, but would be operated as separate businesses with their own checkstands. Super S would sell the products mentioned above, in addition to health and beauty products, and each unit would feature a full-service pharmacy. The stated goal was to have the first combination Safeway/Super S store open during the following March in Anchorage, Alaska (hey, why not?) with a total of five stores to be opened in 1963. Six stores were actually opened that year, with 22 more following in 1964.

Surprisingly, especially given Safeway’s outstanding overall performance throughout the period, the Super S stores were not a successful venture. In 1965, twenty-three new Safeway/Super S stores were opened. That same year, however, 22 of the existing (and still very new) Super S units were sold off to Salt Lake City-based Skaggs Drug Centers, Inc., in a transaction that included all Super S’s east of the state of California except for two Washington, D.C. stores. The adjoining Safeways continued to operate. By 1969, the Super S store count was stagnant at 30 stores, and in 1971 the balance of the Super S stores were disposed of.

I surmise that one factor involved in the failure of the Super S concept was the fact that they were separated by a full-length wall from the Safeway, save for the relatively small entrance portal between them. To me, this arrangement could only serve to discourage customers from wandering the second store after they had completed their purchases from the first. In Chicago, for example, the Jewel/Osco combination stores (which have been successful for 45 years now) had no such wall (*see comments), and any item from either store can be purchased at the Osco counter or any of the Jewel checkstands. Most Jewel/Osco stores opened in recent decades in fact share checkstands.

Sadly, the ultimate advantage to this divided arrangement, then, was to facilitate the conversion of the Super S operations to a Skaggs or other successor brand.
As the years have rolled on, of course, Safeway’s store footprints and product offerings have grown tremendously, and undoubtedly most products once sold at the Super S stores can today be found under the roof of a regular Safeway. All’s well that ends well.

The top photo, from 1964, features a Safeway/Super S from San Jose. The other three photos are Super S interiors from a slightly older store in Carmichael, California.


  1. I couldn't help but notice the toiletry brands in the third picture after I zoomed in. I saw the name Tussy and almost did a backflip. A friend of mine I work out with at the gym has some deordorant she bought from the dollar store with the brand name Tussy. And we usually have several jokes for the name which can't be written here. Anyhoo, I googled it and found out that Tussy has been around since 1925 and that today mostly you find the brand in dollar stores. And here I thought it was some low budget brand with no history.

  2. My mom mentioned it years ago as a shampoo brand her family used to buy when she was a kid (in the late 40's/early 50's) because it was cheap. So you were right about the "low budget" part.

  3. Because they sold liquour, some Oscos had to be walled off from adjacent Jewels, in some states.

    National had both walled off and integrated Kare pharmacies. Kroger's SuperX stores were always walled off from adjacent Kroger's and Tom Thumb's Page Drug started out as separate. If Super-S failed it may have been a failure in marketing and management, not the concept.

  4. Some Oscos were walled off from Jewels and some took over former Jewel stores, away from new Jewels.

    National's Kare Drugs also had some walled-off and integrated locations. Kroger's SuperX stores were always walled-off, as were Stop & Shop's MediMart.

    In short, the walled-off concept worked for other people, but apparently not Safeway. If Super-S failed if may have been Safeway's management and merchandising.

  5. You are right, there were Jewel/Osco (and Buttrey/Osco and Star/Osco) units separated by walls due to local liquor and/or pharmacy regulations. Thanks for pointing that out.

    From what I've read in old corporate reports, the "open" type did appear to be the company's preference for the combination stores. Even in the "open" type, with a single checkstand area, Jewel was (and is) careful to maintain the separate identity of the departments.

    For whatever reason, out of the ones you've listed ("Kare" - now there's an interesting one from the past - good old National!), Jewel's execution of the concept does seem to have been the only one to have survived all of these years.

    As far as Safeway goes, I mentioned the "wall" as only one possible factor in the demise of the "Super S's". I suspect that the main reason is as you say, a failure on the part of marketing and management, which is amazing considering that Safeway was America's number two grocer during all those years, behind only the (far less profitable) A&P.

    Thanks so much for your input!

  6. We had a walled-off Osco/Buttrey in Pocatello, Idaho, where I grew up, and I still ocassionally have dreams about it, though long ago it was turned into the city hall. The dreams are stress dreams; I am always trying to get from one side of the store to the other, having forgotten to pay for whatever I got on the first side, then realizing with great embarrassment that I don't yet "belong" on the other side and might get in trouble for carrying the merchandise across the divide. Very Freudian, I suppose.

  7. Coke - Sounds like enough to give one a guilt complex, violating the airspace between the two sides!

    Most of the Jewel-Oscos that I shopped in were open with cobined checkoyts. Ive got some Buttrey-Osco photos I hope to post soon.

  8. Pacific Beach, a suburb of San Diego had a Safeway/Super S paired store that used separate entrances as I recall. It did not last long as a Super S, it became a Sav-on Drugstore which remained there for quite some time.

    As a kid I found it terribly irresistable to stay away from the aisle mounted intercom/loudspeaker "Voycall" that allowed me to make my voice heard in the whole store. I usually did it and made a very quick escape.

  9. Anonymous - Thanks for sharing those details about the Pacific Beach Super S. And about the intercom thing, you were a brave one, for sure!

  10. The Safeway in San Ramon was originally built as a Super S store. I'm so thankful that you posted an article about the concept. Although I was very young at the time, I do recall having to walk through the automated doors to go from the grocery store to the drug store. My earliest memories of the drug side was Pay N' Save. Even during the Pay N' Save days, the doors remained unlocked. However, when Pay N' Save closed, it was replaced by a Bill's Drugs and the doors sealed off.
    The ironic thing is, the Safeway I shop at now has a large selection of drug-store items. Seems like they came back to the concept, in some ways.

  11. Scott - Thanks very much! Those "divided" combination stores were fairly common. Although many chains dropped the combo approach within 10 years or less of launching it, you're absolutely right - in the years since, many of them rebuilt their general merchandise lines almost back to the same point in the years afterward.

  12. To Dave, I hope you can post those photos of Buttrey soon. I can barely remember their stores, but I got a "Skaggs Alpha Beta" cookie card out of the deal.

    The one in Idaho Falls, Ida. did not sport a wall like Pocatello's, but was a "Buttrey-Osco." I never understood that as a kid.

  13. Just curious, but is the location of the store pictured at the top the intersection of Hillsdale and Camden Avenues?

  14. Yes, that top photo is of the Hillsdale Store - It was also my office as Dist. Mgr. of Super S, 1967 to 1971- I opened the Santa Clara store in 1963 as it's 1st manager !

  15. Charles – Thanks for verifying that for us. I would say you’re in a better position to do that than most! That had to be a very exciting time to be working for Safeway. Again, thanks very much.

  16. I remember shopping at the Carmichael Safeway when I was a kid in the 1980's and 1990's. I was suprised that the store even had a portal to the Super S store,because the interior of that store was completely remodeled by the time I shopped there. All I knew about this store prior to reading this blog was that it opened in 1963. When I shopped there, the portal was walled off and there was a Payless Drug store where the Super S was. In 1995 the Safeway store closed because building became run down, and was torn down in 1998. Then the Payless which was turned into a Rite Aid, that used to be the Super S building was torn down a year later, also because it was run down.

    There was a strip mall behind the old Safeway/Super S site which was torn down in 1998 to build a new Safeway and Rite Aid along with a Blockbuster Video in the middle.
    The new Carmichael Safeway suprisingly looks alot like the old one in the pictures.

    1. I remember shopping at the Carmichael Super S as a kid in the mid-60s. At one point they ran a promotion where customers received bingo cards and a scratch-off ticket with each purchase that revealed a letter and number. I received a ticket for a plastic model kit purchase that completed bingo on my parents' card and won $10. My parents let me have the $10 which was a lot of money at that time.

  17. So...Safeway sells the Super S stores to Skaggs Drug Centers...which becomes American Stores...which is bought by Albertsons...which buys Safeway!