Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America

I had heard of A&P as a small Northeast grocery chain that may have been more important before. However, I did not realize how significant they were. A&P was the Wal-Mart of the early early 20th century. It evolved from a "showmanship" tea company to a cut-throat grocery company. Under the Hartford brothers, A&P expanded from the Tea and sugar business into grocery sales. At the time, most grocery stores were small independent operations that provided deliveries and credit and sold mostly individual items chosen from bulk containers. The quality was often suspect and the touch of clerks was required along the way. A&P created a centralized system with store brands as well as name brands. The stores became more self-service and did away with credit and delivery. They used their scale to give everybody low prices. (They were even concerned about stores becoming too profitable, thereby reducing the benefit to consumers.) The company grew like crazy and expanded throughout the eastern United States. The stores started out super small (as was custom in the day) and gradually grey to be larger and further spaced. There were plenty of legal challenges (including anti-trust suits complaining that prices were too high.) The company was also very conservative, sticking to short term leases and little debt allowing them to be very nimble.
After World War II, the company floundered. The Hartford brothers died, leaving the company to loyal employees. The inbred leadership was very conservative, trying to keep the same path, even as society was changing. New, large supermarkets were going up in custom-built suburban areas. A&P stores were not maintained well, and were small by comparison to supermarkets. The prices were also less competitive as A&P lost its advantages. The Hartford foundation also was sucking money from the company through dividends. Eventually the company went public, leading to even greater scrutiny before its final demise.
"The Great A&P" is very positive in its view of the A&P's legacy. The company was truly innovative. However, it did start the ball rolling on many changes from which we are still recovering. (They sponsored the "chicken of tomorrow" contest that lead to bland meat optimized for production of calories rather than bird health or taste.) Their innovations led to the elimination of many "mom-and-pop" operations, only to have A&P itself fall in favor of more nimble operations. We have seen this repeated with book-stores and other retailers. We do get lower prices and more efficiencies, but we also lose out on some of the personal benefits and product quality. If only we could get the best of both worlds.

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