It occurs to me that here at Curbside we spend relatively more time describing cars and other vehicles than we do exploring and thinking about what is put into these vehicles; or maybe more precisely, how the process of using cars/etc. to serve their owners’ basic life needs has changed over time. When it comes to basic life needs, the business of procuring food kind of tops the list. And it turns out that the way that cars have figured into the core business of grocery-getting has indeed seen significant change over the course of the past century.
I find that thinking about the use of cars for grocery shopping is all the more interesting in that much of this history is connected to shifts in how and where Americans live, and that in turn where and how Americans live is very much connected to the car’s shifting place in home and family operations. The result is that you can’t talk about grocery shopping without talking about cars, and you can’t fully consider the role of the car in American life and culture without acknowledging the purposes to which the car has been put. Within this dynamic, examining one element provides further insight into the related component of the relationship.
Culture is a veritable mobius strip where one thing leads to another which leads to another which takes you back around to the beginning which after some twists always leads back to the beginning again. Take your pick as to where to start or which component more fascinates you, but here we’re going to take a look at how grocery stores have catered to the needs of a public that has increasingly needed to use cars to conduct their shopping activities…which have increasingly depended upon cars.
Early grocery stores tended to be in-town affairs, integrated into a city’s commercial strip like any other retail establishment. Prior to the advent of self-service grocery stores, most customers either sent an order to the store (initially by messenger, later by telephone) or came into the store and made their order in-person. Either way, the typical end result was that the store staff would gather together the groceries and then proceed to deliver them to the customer’s home.
From the earliest years of the 20th century, the work of delivering groceries typically involved trucks or “sedan delivery” cars of one sort or another. Stores employed some number of clerks who packaged up the groceries and drivers whose job was to travel around town in vehicles delivering groceries. For the most part, the delivery process was under the control of the grocery stores.
This ad for an American Austin Bantam Delivery is from July, 1930. Presumably any store that purchased one of these as a delivery vehicle would have purchased one of only 8448 Bantams sold in 1930. This was American Austin’s best year. CC’s Roger Carr has a comprehensive article on the Austin Seven, which includes some discussion of the American Austin. I could imagine that a small sedan delivery vehicle would have been just the thing for zipping around a major city, much like how bicycle deliveries currently work in NYC, Boston, etc. Larger vehicles, such as the International in the previous photo existed as well (there are lots more of these pictures at the Wisconsin Historical Society which holds much of the photographic archives of International Harvester).
Today’s home delivery vehicles are larger yet again, although by now some are EVs. Giant Foods operates several EVs in its fleet of over 150 delivery vehicles. This one that I caught on its rounds just last week in the Woodley Park neighborhood of DC may have been one of them. I’m not sure as the EVs look nearly identical to the standard ICE-powered trucks. These large vehicles speak somewhat to the current popularity of home-delivery, a subject that we’ll come back around to in a bit.
Back to the history…while the order and then deliver model of grocery “shopping” persisted through the 1920s, a new model for retail groceries was coming on the scene – the “self-service” grocery store. This model catered to the understanding that providing access to an ever-greater number of branded product choices would encourage consumer activity; and in turn, greater consumer activity would generate a even greater number of choices (there’s our mobius strip again). As this consumer culture arms-race raged, it became clear that grocery stores needed to be larger facilities and that the shopper would feel more empowered as a consumer if she were allowed to browse the displayed abundance directly. This inspired the invention of the self-service market (or soon to be called “super” market). Piggly Wiggly is credited as being the first grocery company to develop the self-service market in Memphis, TN in 1916.
I’ve seen this photo of the interior of Piggly Wiggly #1 many times, and the thing that most impresses me is how seriously the store design took what was likely the company’s greatest concern with how the public would react to this new shopping concept. The turnstiles and chain link barrier at the front of the store illustrate the worry that if one let shoppers access the merchandise directly, many would just “grab and go”. It’s interesting how concepts of customer behavior change over time. Just as how banks used to chain down the ballpoint pens in their lobbies, early self-service grocery stores had no confidence that their customers would actually abide by rules…rules that really didn’t exist prior to the cultural norming of self-service shopping.
It must have been pretty exciting – and often a bit unnerving – to live in the early 20th century when activities such as self-service shopping, driving cars, answering and operating telephones, etc. were all novel and expectations for how these activities “would work” were still developing. While it’s easy to assume that there’s always some sort of logic behind what ultimately emerges as common practice, it often turns out that random chance plays significant role in what develops as “the way things are”. For example, I am sort of sad that we didn’t standardize on “Ahoy!” instead of “Hello” when answering the phone. Yet another missed opportunity to make America speak like a pirate, again. Oh well.
In short order, the basic layout and customer expectations related to shopping were established by the first quarter of the 2oth century. Aside from the use of baskets instead of carts – shopping carts having been invented in Oklahoma City in 1937 and patented in 1940 – the layout of an early self-service grocery stores is one that is basically familiar to modern eyes. Most modern shoppers would easily figure out how to navigate Safeway from 100 years ago.
But it’s the exterior and positioning of these stores that is largely unfamiliar to all but the most urban viewer. What’s missing?
Parking lots, of course; a fact that underscores the significant difference in how our American great grandparents utilized their cars in relation to basic consumer tasks. It took several more years before the grocery industry largely settled on updated expectations related to the role of cars in grocery shopping.
These early grocery stores in the 1920s through the 1940s, even in an increasingly self-service model simply didn’t cater to shoppers driving to the store as a singular destination activity. Rather, those shoppers who did drive likely took the car “into town” and then proceeded to run any number of errands – including grocery shopping – while there. The lack of close-by parking encouraged shoppers to visit the store, choose their groceries, and then still to have them delivered by what at that time was a key component of the grocery experience – the delivery “boy”.
The delivery boy and his delivery vehicle were such a common fixture of the pre-war (WWII) grocery store scene that he figured prominently on the cover illustrations of Progressive Grocer, the primary trade journal of the American grocery store industry.
Emmett Watson’s vaguely suggestive covers no doubt brightened up many a dull store manager’s office back in the day.
Surely many customers did drive specifically to go grocery shopping, but then they had to compete for on-street parking with the customers of other in-town commercial establishments. It was just easier, and fully acceptable, to have the store deliver the goods once purchased. In short, while the grocery industry had moved steadily to self-service, getting the groceries actually to the consumer’s home was largely the same process as had existed prior to self-service. Nevertheless, as grocery stores grew further in size to accommodate ever greater selection of products (see above) and efforts were made to increase the number of shoppers shopping at any given moment to further even increase profitability, it became increasingly clear parking was a significant barrier to growth. Shoppers would buy more if they could streamline the shopping experience by arriving in their own cars – cars which were becoming increasingly ubiquitous through the 1920s into the 1930s — and leaving with their purchases.
This article from the July 1930 issue of Progressive Grocer captures the moment when a few forward thinking businesses began to rethink how their establishments positioned themselves relative to the the changing consumer use of the automobile. Grocers such as the featured Martin Sausser were taking a gamble by moving away from downtown commercial districts but mitigated that risk by attracting customers with ample free parking.
Stausser’s Country Market had parking for 300 cars (as well as apparently an airplane landing strip) and was clearly hailed by the trade magazine as the very latest in modern convenience. Reading this article, the description of the Findlay, OH Country Market seems pretty much the same as any modern suburban grocery; only Findlay wasn’t a “suburb”. In fact, the grocery store moved out of town into what would ultimately become the auto-centric suburb. Large supermarkets such as the Country Market were initial outposts in what would become (largely post-war) suburbia. What had started as a way to address the need for more parking became a movement that also encouraged the migration of customers outside of the urban grid. This in turn exacerbated increased dependence upon cars (to drive around those spread out commercial districts and to travel back into the city where still most residents worked). Ultimately this all gave rise to what many consider the “sprawl” of today. Mobius time.
As supermarkets grew in number and size, catering to customers’ needs related to getting groceries out to their cars became a matter of increasing concern. This inspired a vast array of so-called “curbside pick-up” options to help customers manage the ever-expanding hiking trip that traversing giant parking lots had become.
The most fascinating of these curbside options – at least to 10 year old me when I first encountered one of these things – was the “giant conveyor” system that delivered your groceries from where they were bagged at the register out to either a remote location in the parking lot or the outside front of the store — curbside. The whole process warranted explanation in a full page newspaper ad for a new “superstore” in Iowa in the early 1960s.
The mid-1960s seems to be the heyday of curbside pickup and parking lot delivery services, at least as measured by store newspaper ads.
At one time or another, most major chains such as A&P, Grand Union, etc. had such systems. A few seem to still be in existence, but not many. Why? Do more customers nowadays want to walk around the parking lot pushing carts than was the case in the past? I’d wager not.
Once the groceries were outside of the store, there would usually still be another clerk available to load the goods into the customer’s car.
Sometimes this was literally at curbside.
Other times clerks escorted customers to their cars, whereupon the clerk would load the car there. In my family, this always inspired a discussion as to whether it was appropriate necessary to tip the bag boy.
Like most Americans, my family’s thinking regarding tipping was always a bit fraught and usually driven by an attempt to suss out the regional expectations. In the South and mid-Atlantic, tipping for things other than restaurant service was often deemed unnecessary. We found it entertaining and weird when encountering someone who offered a tip to the gas station attendant or supermarket bag boy. On the other hand, I suppose that when we were in NY (for example) and drove away without tipping the guy who pumped our gas, we were probably assumed to be hicks and/or the paragon of ungratefulness. I don’t know; the point is that it was never clear what was best practice or what constituted the local expectation around tipping. This generated frequent social anxiety and discomfort, but that seemed just par for the course in my ever-slightly-out-of-step family.
With the perspective of age, I can now see that my family was probably not alone in its anxiety about tipping practices. In fact, “worries about tipping” are often cited as being one of the reasons why grocery stores, gas stations, public washrooms, and the like started to rapidly phase out attendants during the 1970s. In reality, the reasons for the growth of self-service and the decline in retail attendants (whether at gas stations or grocery stores) are complex. Factors ranging from the growth of independent retailers (for gas stations) that had greater incentives for cost-cutting and savings, to the effects that the Vietnam War had on the availability of entry-level male laborers (e.g., men under the age of 25 who were available to take low-skilled, low-pay work such as clerks) all contributed to a decline in “attendants”…and soon the culture adjusted and customers learned to do without help. Ultimately that’s simply what we expected, and therefore “liked”. As is frequently the case with culture, the underlying reasons for changing expectations often remain unexamined by (mostly) uncritical public minds. Things just simply “are” and the public moves along with life.
In absence of clerks for curbside pickup, shoppers simply pushed their own carts to the car. Over time, some of us have even learned to how to do “self-checkout” and have increasingly come to see that less interaction with retail workers is desirable..whether we set out to want this or not.
At least for the time-being, the ultimate reflection of the contact-less retail experience seems to be that offered by Amazon in its “Amazon Go” markets. Here, the shopper tacitly agrees to forego nearly all data-privacy for the privilege of moving freely inside of what is essentially a giant vending machine (full of heavily packaged items). The experience is all about the “convenience” of not having to engage with any customer service staff at all.
But an interesting thing has happened on the way to the pandemic. Curbside pickup has become once again a thing. Suddenly in the Spring of 2020, reluctance to gather indoors and uncertainty about whether the virus could be transmitted by touching inanimate objects conspired with the need to eat food and gave new life to shopping services and delivery or curbside pickup. For a while, grocery stores that were desperate to retain customers offered non-self-service — which I put forward as the opposite of self-service — at no-cost to customers. This of course ultimately changed as shoppers did return to stores, and self-service could resume. But for a surprising number of shoppers – those leading lives that are “too busy” to attend to tasks such as grocery shopping or even food preparation – non-self-service and grocery delivery have become a feature of post-pandemic life.
In fact, the 2021/2022 trends in online shopping and delivery recreate in many ways the shopping patterns of the Gilded Age and early 20th century (at least among upper classes), where orders for food and all manner of consumer products were transmitted to the store, packaged by attendants, and then ultimately delivered, and prepared, at home by domestic servants. Only nowadays, the transmission is online and the servants are more likely gig workers driving and delivering groceries or prepared food for DoorDash or Uber.
Most of the large chain supermarkets in my area offer online ordering, shopping, and delivery services. The range of services offered by Shaw’s (my local flavor of Albertsons, which I guess is now Kroger’s) is typical. The core service involves store staff picking your ordered products from the store shelves and then bagging them up for delivery curbside.
Shoppers arriving at the store to retrieve their orders are encouraged to park in specially-marked spaces in the lot where the store staff can come find them and put the groceries into their vehicles. I have to say though that whenever I visit this store, or most others that offer a similar service, I usually see the special spaces occupied by parked, but empty, cars (where the owners are inside the store doing self-service grocery shopping). This does make me question the overall popularity of these “curbside” pickup services, at least in my area.
Shaw’s “DriveUp & Go” service currently seems mostly oriented to home delivery. I suppose that this makes sense since if you’re going to pay for the store to select, bag, and bill your order you might as well go full Downton Abbey and dispatch gig-Branson or robo-Barrow to pickup your order and drive it home for you.
On the other hand, the paucity of orders to go – Who actually buys that little stuff and then has it delivered?? — lends support to the idea that grocery shopping habits that have developed over the past century are likely still holding strong for what is still the majority of households. The vast majority of the customers for my local Shaw’s drove their own cars, parked in the lot, and will drive home with the purchased they selected on their own. Old habits die hard, and as a devotee of grocery shopping, I’m happy for it. I can absolutely resonate with the criticism that all of this driving to and from the store in a fossil-fuel burning vehicle has done no favors for our environment; and yet, simply turning the driving over to someone else (i.e., the DoorDash driver) and their carbon footprint doesn’t seem a particularly good solution either. Furthermore, if I were to start routinely paying someone else to go grocery shopping for me then that would turn up the heat on my need for personal income, which would in-turn have its own carbon impact (more plane trips, more travel, etc. etc. etc.). Clearly there are a lot of issues here and untangling them in a way that brings benefits to people, the economy, and the planet is a huge job…a job that will require the collaborative efforts of many people, industries (not just Amazon), and policy-makers. Hummmm. Now I’m worried.
Meanwhile, I just wish that that roller conveyor thing that delivered my groceries from the checkout station to the curb at the Grand Union in Bethesda would make a comeback.
Not only is the conveyor cool – there seems no better entertainment for all ages than to watch the rollers and to have your mom (or mom’s voice in your head) remind you to “Stop it!!! That thing will catch your fingers!!” as you spin the rollers while walking out of the store. More importantly, the conveyor would keep carts out of the parking lot. That’s a good thing for cars. Getting hit by carts seems to have been a car ad meme from before there were memes.
I always liked the commercial where Saturns were “tested” against carts, and could have featured that, except then you’d have to watch 50 seconds of grainy video of Saturns from the early 1990s to get to the punchline about shopping carts. Even as a former Saturn owner, (SW2, it was green) that may be even more than I can take. Take my word for it, I tested it and they hold up well to shopping carts…but maybe not much else.
Whether or not grocery store curbside delivery conveyors make a comeback, it seems abundantly clear that Americans’ habit of driving to the grocery is as strong today as it was back in Martin Sausser’s day. Whether we load them into the car ourselves, or have a clerk do it (something I’d like to see for a whole lot of reasons), or have someone else do the driving for us, the car seems unalterably linked to the task of grocery shopping for the vast majority of shoppers. That interconnection seems solid. Norms change, but for the most part we’re all shoppers, and more of us than not are drivers.
The cars will change, the grocery stores will change and one change will drive the other. But I’m guessing that one way or the other, cars and grocery stores will remain linked well into the future.
Most of the images for this post – except for the Giant delivery truck and the Shaw’s supermarket DriveUp & Go photos – were scrounged off the web. Of particular note might be the key image of the Publix Market from 1961. This car-spotters dream – I would gladly own any of the cars in that picture – Publix Market at Venice East near Sarasota, Florida is by Joseph Janney Steinmetz and is part of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory project.
Also of note are the roller conveyor photos by user dominion301 on Flickr. All searches for “grocery bin roller conveyors” seem to wind up at dominion301’s Photostream.
Finally, if you’re interested in falling down a vintage grocery store photo rabbit hole, there are a surprising number of sites online that are just that. You’ve been warned.