A Bit of Super History
A story of retail evolution
This is a piece I’ve been wanting to write for years, based on bits and pieces of retail history I’ve picked up from blogs, forums, comments sections, etc. It’s a longtime interest of mine, and it relates to my main beat too. After all, big-box retail is a lot harder to imagine without widespread car use and suburban sprawl.
I think I’ve pretty much traced the history of the supercenter in America here, though with reliance on the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic chains I know the most about:
Many other lesser-known local or regional retailers were experimenting with the same concept in the same era. Two small New Jersey-area chains, Valley Fair and Great Eastern Mills, operated very large hybrid grocery-discount stores in the early 1960s, though I cannot determine if they were fully connected. The accounts I can find state that these stores consisted of leased departments, as did many of these early ventures, making them something like a hybrid between a flea market and a modern big-box supercenter. (One online commenter who worked at a Great Eastern as a teen in the 1970s remembers letting mice and snakes from the pet department into the beauty parlor through a hole in the wall dividing them.)
Two Guys, another New Jersey discount chain from the late 1950s, also featured supermarket sections. Modell’s, the now–fully online sporting goods retailer, once maintained a handful of discount store-grocery hybrids, now nearly forgotten. (Read the comments on this nostalgic article.) Korvette’s, a New York-area discount chain, partnered with the grocery chain Hill’s to offer proto-supercenters. (They even shared a single sign.) At one point, Korvette’s owned and operated its own supermarkets, which it co-located with some of its discount stores.
I note in the piece that there were very likely a whole raft of proto-supercenter stores all throughout America.
But an introduction. Most people, I think, would guess that Walmart invented the supercenter if you asked them. Certainly, Walmart is most heavily associated with this super-sized retail concept. (If you ask in the Midwest, you’ll be told Meijer, which is much closer to be being true.)
As I’ve read about the history of the supercenter and the discount department store over the years, I’ve realized that supercenters, or proto-supercenters, existed in pretty large numbers before Walmart ever opened its first one, in the late 1980s. In fact, my parents encountered one of these in the 1990s when they moved to Central Jersey: Laneco. Laneco was a regional discount department store—like a K-Mart—but some of their larger locations had full grocery sections as well. (They used to get really cheap crab legs at the Laneco supermarket!)
I was a young kid then, and Laneco went defunct not long after, but if you’d asked me, I guess I would have guessed that Laneco copied Walmart. But Laneco unveiled their first supercenter in 1964—almost a quarter century before Walmart! In fact, it’s said that the founder of Laneco, Ray Bartolacci, actually inspired Sam Walton.
Meijer has the best claim of any well-known retailer today: their first supercenter opened in 1962. They, like Walmart, imply that they invented the category. But there are grocery/discount combination stores going back to the 1950s, at least; one fellow on Twitter gave me the name of a chain that, he said, was building suburban supercenters in the 1940s. I got some other names from the Twitter responses to this piece, mostly for stores in other parts of the country. So there may be a part two here.
But what I want to focus in on is this point:
Determining which one [of a bunch of early supercenter-like stores] invented the concept is almost the wrong question: What we’re seeing is the equivalent of a fossil record. “Was Great Eastern Mills a supercenter or something else?” is like asking “Was the archaeopteryx a bird or a dinosaur?” The supercenter was not created; it evolved.
Figuring all of this out is not just a matter of reading the “supercenter” entry in Wikipedia. This retail history is largely forgotten and has not been fully and centrally recorded. It requires real research, which is to say, doing history.
And most of these examples are just in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region. There was very likely a whole cast of forgotten, experimental proto-supercenters all over midcentury America.
This is a question, or a story, that simply hasn’t been told. Especially in the age of the internet, it’s hard to imagine there can still be such a thing. But there is. And even more alarming, from a historian’s perspective, is that many of the sources for piecing this history together are ephemeral and endangered. Those old blogs and comments sections will go offline one day, and with them will disappear the only record of many pieces of stories like this.
A final bit, however, on the actual stores. What do I mean by “proto-supercenter”? Well, as noted above, retail concepts often “evolve,” with a lot of forerunner concepts leading up to what might be considered the “true” embodiment of the concept.
In this case, earlier forms of the supercenter were frequently co-located supermarkets and discount stores (partnerships or separate chains with the same parent company). Some had no common interior at all, while others had a door between the two halves. Generally the merchandise half and grocery half had its own checkout section. This could differ within a chain, too. Bradlees and Stop & Shop, at one point under the same ownership, co-located a lot of their stores, but sometimes had interior doorways between the stores.
What stood out to me was how there seemed to be a lot of muddy execution among most supercenter forerunners. Part of that, no doubt, was because of the pretty significant differences between the discount and grocery trades. Add on top of that the fact that within the discount store half, many of the individual departments were still “leased” (an outside firm running that department), and you see something that is fundamentally, but not entirely, the modern, refined version of this retail idea.
If you happen to know anything about any of this, leave a comment! I enjoyed this one a lot and I’m sure I’ll be back to it again. And read the whole piece in The Bulwark!
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