Opinion: The rise and fall of A&P

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Commentary by Ward Degler

Somebody mentioned grocery shopping at the local A&P a few days ago. It got me thinking that I hadn’t seen or even heard of A&P for years.

The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. started out in New York City selling tea and coffee under the founding ownership and name of Geo Gilman & Co. Business was good, and 19 years later Geo Gillman launched the first-ever chain of grocery stores.

Up until that time, all grocery stores in the United States were one-off and privately owned, often mom-and-pop operations known as general mercantile stores where folks could buy their groceries, cattle feed, a bag of nails and, for the Mrs., a Sunday frock right off the rack.

A&P changed all that. Folks loved the new stores, including the self-service aisles where you could shop at your own pace and only had to deal with the clerk at the cash register.

By 1930, A&P had 16,000 stores scattered across 38 states. Everybody shopped at the A&P.

Sadly, the firm grew complacent, ignored competition and soon became outdated. Kroger stores, for instance, were founded only three years after A&P but made it their business to stay on top of the retail grocery sales. Kroger, for example, was the first grocery retailer to build stores that had parking lots on all sides of the building. A&P stores were often crowded into tight spaces where finding a convenient place to park was difficult.

By the late 1950s, A&P started closing unprofitable stores as other, bigger chains captured an ever-increasing share of the grocery business. The biggest thorn in A&P’s side was Walmart, founded in Rogers, Ark., by Sam Walton in 1950. By 1975, Walmart had pretty much eclipsed A&P’s grocery business with stores in every state in the union and in Canada and a guarantee of low prices on everything.

A&P struggled on for a few more years, closing more stores and reorganizing, but ultimately filed for bankruptcy and ceased grocery operations in 2015. Ironically, the company continued selling coffee as it had in the beginning until it was forced to liquidate.

A&P’s coffee brand was 8 O’clock, a familiar name today found in Kroger stores.

A footnote to this story involves the shopping cart, a convenience designed in 1937 by Sylvan Goldman, founder of Humpty Dumpty stores. One of his early customers was A&P.

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