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. 


  1. Welcome back, Dave!

    (I've commented here before as "Hamfast Ruddyneck", but I'm trying to reduce my number of monickers. I've also moved from Pine Bluff to Benton since I first posted here.)

    Alpha Beta never made it into the Arkanshire, but I grew up in the 1970s as well (born 1963), and I remember discount food experiments as well.

    We had a place in Pine Bluff called Warehouse Foods, where the customers picked up grease pencils at the door and marked the prices on the items which were shown on the displays. I guess that saved money for the store, because they did not need to use so many price stickers. (For any younger readers, bar codes didn't exist yet. ^_^) The displays were not fancy, of course--often they were just the shipping boxes, opened in front for easier access, IIRC.

    Later, there were both Sack 'n' Save and County Market, where the idea was to save money by sacking your own groceries, so the stores didn't need to hire (and pay) as many people. IIRC, County Market got started in the 1980s and S&S in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Both lasted until about 2010 or so.

    County Market began as a discount offshoot of one of the best-named grocery chains ever, The Mad Butcher stores. The MB stores still exist, as part of the Food Giant family of stores. When I was a kid, the title character looked like he might actually be crazy, and the radio and TV ads for the MB stores included a crazy-sounding laugh. I guess they decided he might be a bit too scary, so they toned him down.

    When I was a kid in the 1970s and school was out, my parents, who both worked outside the home, would park me with one or another of my grandmas. My mom's mom and my dad's parents lived on the same street, an easy walk from the local Mad Butcher. (Mom's dad died before I was born.)

    I often accompanied one or more of them to the MB. This was back when they still sold soda pops in deposit bottles in open cartons, so you could mix and match sodas, as long as they all came from the same bottler. I remember bringing home assortments of fizzy goodness. ^_^

  2. Just wondering Dave... why the long absence?

  3. Glad to see a fresh post, and this was a very interesting reference to the early effort at discount grocery shopping (had read about the inflation-plagued 1970s but was unfamiliar with the 1966 story).

  4. County Market is a franchise-type name. I'm not sure who it's owned by, but there are stores scattered throughout the central United States. In Arkansas, they may have been owned by a group out of either Louisiana or Mississippi called Walker Foods. They still have several stores in Shreveport, Ruston and Monroe/West Monroe. My very first job was at their ill-fated only Texas store in Longview in 1989. They closed that store in early January 1990, selling it to the Brookshire Grocery Company, who converted it (in 6 days!) to a Super 1 Foods, which was 10 times more successful than County Market had ever been. (I also worked for Super 1 in that location) Most of the County Market ideas were copied by Brookshire for the Super 1 stores: the Wall of Values, no baggers, warehouse-style stocking, etc.

    Ironically, before both stores, our building was an old Safeway that was once the top Safeway store in Texas (not just because it was at the highest point in town).

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  6. It's great not only to see a new post here -- especially for those of us not too keen on Facebook -- but to also have it be on good ol' Alpha Beta. Along with Raley's in NorCal (still going strong) and Hughes in SoCal (long gone), Alpha Beta was a favorite of mine in both parts of the state. In portions of SoCal, I'd say that most former Alpha Beta shoppers now got to Stater Brothers but would still prefer if the more colorful and spacious stores with Alphy's smiling face would return.

    Since I'm in here, while not from the days of pleasant family shopping per se, you might poke around Google News to look up the current story of the Pacific Northwest's Haggen entering the SoCal market by taking a bunch of Albertsons that had to be sold to let the Safeway merger go through. You would probably know best but it might be one of the most disasterous supermarket introductions in American history.

    1. Haggen was indeed a disaster, but as for the ultimate fate of Alpha Beta, when American Stores bought Lucky Stores, the resulting divestment ended with only a handful of Alpha Beta stores actually converted with the rest of the division eventually being sold to Yucaipa Cos., which converted them to Ralphs?

  7. I goofed earlier. While Alpha Beta (Skaggs Alpha Beta here) never made it to Pine Bluff, they did have a few stores elsewhere in the Arkanshire.

  8. Dave, no offense, but I seriously had started to think maybe you died... so glad to see this latest post. I check the blog every day for updates. Is everything okay?

  9. Thanks, Scott. I didn't know County Market was found outside of the Arkanshire. Maybe Mad Butcher bought a franchise to use the name from the company you mentioned.

  10. I had gotten out of the habit of checking this bookmark periodically because of the dearth of updates. I know it is a chore to keep generating content. Glad to see you back, Dave!

  11. The 'Snackin Cake' at the end of the aisle brought back memories. It is frustrating when companies discontinue food you like.

  12. Nothing better than late '60s/early '70s supermarket photos! Interesting as always, LOVE this stuff.

  13. Interesting. I dont remember an Alpha Beta at Brookhurst and Hamilton in HB in 1972. I grew up on Atlanta and Magnolia, so this was my turf. We always went to the Alpha Beta on 17th street in Costa Mesa.

  14. I remember in the early 1980's, we used to drive to the next town over to go to the white label grocery store. There were no name brands; everything was in a plain white package with black lettering. The displays were just open boxes, and you packed your own groceries in your own bags or boxes you brought from home. Kind of like Aldi today, but with a more Soviet look and feel.