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What Is a Supermarket, Anyways?

Rachel Tepper Paley
August 4, 2014

Photo credit: George Marks/Getty

Imagine an era before supermarkets, when food shopping didn’t mean pushing a metal cart down gleaming aisles abundantly stocked with everything from artisanal mustard to gluten-free cereal.

That’s hard to do, right? That’s because the modern supermarket—a retail establishment with “self-service, separate product departments, discount pricing, [and] marketing and volume selling"—came into being way back on August 4, 1930. On that day, the first King Kullen market opened its doors in New York City.

Although King Kullen certainly isn’t the biggest grocery chain on the scene today (it only has 39 locations around Long Island, New York, compared to, say, Walmart’s thousands of outposts), its historical significance is huge. Before King Kullen, mom-and-pop groceries and specialty meat and dairy shops were the norm, with people stopping off for their sausages at one shop and produce another (a practice that remains standard in many metropolitan areas today). But the chain’s founder, Michael Cullen, envisioned something different.

He imagined a market “on the fringes of a town’s central business district so there would be parking for the rapidly growing numbers of cars on the road,” according to The New York Times. “It would also benefit customers, he reasoned, because the volume buying dictated by the size of the stores would allow for lower prices.”

Cullen likely couldn’t imagine how impressively his idea would catch on, later inspiring mega-stores such as Walmart and Costco. Nor could he predict that his former employer, Kroger—which he had unsuccessfully tried to convince to adopt his supermarket model before setting out on his own—would flip-flop on its stance and become the country’s largest supermarket chain.

Although its patrons are inundated with all sorts of marketing tricks aiming to influence buying habits, the supermarket can be incredibly convenient. Not everyone has time to buy her charcuterie in one spot and her upscale cheese in another. So happy birthday, Mr. Supermarket.