If you’re of Baby Boom vintage or younger, you probably take your local supermarket for granted. You walk in, round up the Mr. Clean and Mrs. Butterworth, mince your way through the check stand, and you’re done.

But grocery shopping wasn’t always like that. The modern supermarket–technically known as a “self-service food store”–is a fairly recent invention.

Prior to World War II, grocery stores were usually very small, narrow affairs, and going shopping amounted to telling a clerk behind a counter exactly what was needed. Since most of the merchandise was also behind the counter, out of reach, the clerk had to personally assemble the order item by item. Often, he or she had to weigh and package items from bulk, whether coffee, flour, or pickles, which didn’t speed things up any.

But slow service wasn’t the reason traditional full-service grocery stores began to die out in the late 1930s. Rather, rising labor costs and a boom in mass-produced packaged foods drove the rapid changeover to self-service supermarkets. Allowing customers to select their own pre-packed items meant less labor and higher volume, which meant more profit for the grocer.

As quaint as it seems today, the boom in packaged foods stemmed largely from the widespread introduction of cellophane. Compared to paper, the new transparent wrappers kept food fresher while allowing self-service customers to see exactly what they were buying. Cellophane wrappers first appeared on dry goods, but quickly spread to baked goods, meats, and vegetables.

The quintessential supermarket layout–a central area devoted to dry goods, a produce section along the right side, and a meat counter at the rear–also gradually took shape during the early postwar years. Beginning with the fact that people naturally tend to circulate toward the right rather than the left, the various grocery sections were laid out in a deliberate sequence designed to increase sales, with staple foods first, followed by discretionary goodies with higher profit margins.

For the first time, the grocery industry also strove to understand what was going on in a housewife’s mind when she went shopping–and mind you, in those days supermarket customers were almost invariably assumed to be women.

“The housewife–her habits, her thinking processes, her frame of mind as she enters the store–should always be given careful consideration,” advised one trade reference of the era. “If the staple groceries are located well back, she will be drawn to the rear of the store … if the housewife can complete her ‘must’ shopping list (there), so much the better. As the housewife winds her way back to the front door, we want her to see our extras, specials, fancies, and high-margin goods, for now she is in a good mood to consider them.”

This carefully planned path of travel exposed the unwitting shopper to “silent salesmanship” of the kind we still find today: mass displays (items stacked in huge quantity to suggest exceptional value), associated displays (for instance, packaged shortcakes placed alongside fresh strawberries), sale items with two-for-one pricing, and of course those check stand displays designed to encourage the purchase of treats for nagging youngsters.

Today, despite 60-odd years of refinement–most of it having to do with pricing, inventory control, and payment–the supermarket remains a distinctly mid-century invention, one that any time-warped GI might recognize. The tough part would be explaining why we’ve now got 10 kinds of orange juice.


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