Supermarkets stand the test of time

How grocery stores became what they are today

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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 ...