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Lessons to be learned from A&P

Local vs. national, independent vs. chain, bricks-and-mortar vs. online – the battles in contemporary retailing are as bruising as any you’ll find in American business.

Except – they’re not that contemporary. They’re decades old (swap “mail-order catalog” for “online”).

What also hasn’t changed is the outcome of those battles will transform how and where you shop, how much you pay, how the things you buy are made and shipped to you – as well as what jobs, companies and entire retailing sectors are created and destroyed.

In other words, the fights are just as important as ever – and no less tumultuous. Just how important, bruising and transformative can be found in a new book, “The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America.”

Author Marc Levinson’s previous book also had considerable relevance to regional business history: “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” (and transformed ports like Tacoma and Seattle in the process).

His latest book details the evolution of a retailing marvel we now take for granted – the modern grocery store – as well as the rise and decline of what was one of the world’s largest and most innovative retailers.

The brand name A&P today means little to most Americans; 50 years ago it was a near ubiquitous retailer with thousands of stores. As recently as 1961 it was the largest retailer in the world, Levinson reports.

The grocery store of the pre-A&P era would likely evoke even less recognition today. It was small, carried limited stock, little of that fresh, and operated in a system that was incredibly inefficient. In the 1920s, Levinson writes, the U.S. had food store for every 51 American families, and one wholesaler for every 43 retailers.

“Americans paid a high price to support this balkanized system for conveying food from farm to table,” Levinson says. “Food was hugely expensive, relative to wages. ... Most households spent more to put dinner on the table than for their rent or their mortgage. And for the average housewife, shopping for food consumed a large part of the day.”

A&P changed that with innovations from rationalizing warehousing and distribution to making its own products, selling them under its own labels, opening larger and better organized stores (and lots of them) – all things considered standard today. Consumers benefitted from lower prices and better quality. But someone pays when an industry is radically reshaped, and in this case it was the independent grocer. The reaction was to fight back with legislation and lawsuits, attacking such practices as manufacturers giving price discounts to large purchasers.

Efforts to rein in or eliminate chain retailers fell to the power of consumers who liked how change worked for them. But those efforts never went away – they live on in Tacoma’s dispute over allowing new big-box retailers, and in the debates over Amazon.com not collecting state and local sales taxes that physical retailers must charge. Levinson’s book is one of the few about which it can be said is too short. While he devotes some space to A&P’s decline, several more chapters could be written on how such a once-dominant retailer became barely an also ran. More modern and nimble competitors sprang up, and A&P failed to keep up the look, location and merchandising of its stores. Retreat became the prevailing strategy (A&P pulled out of the Seattle market in the mid-’70s).

The fleeting nature of success in business – even for companies that revolutionized their sectors – is among the many useful lessons of this book. A&P’s legacy is apparent every time we set food in a modern grocery store, even if the company itself long ago fell victim to many of the forces it unleashed.

Bill Virgin can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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