THE BLOG
09/29/2015 12:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

End of the Road for an American Icon

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by Marc Levinson

The July 20 bankruptcy filing by the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company marks the end of the road for one of the icons of American business. The filing was in no sense a surprise: A&P has spent more than half a century driving itself out of business, shrinking over the years from a nationwide retailer to a small regional grocery chain. Few people, aside from its remaining employees, will grieve. Indeed, most people who think of A&P at all today remember it mainly as the dim and dowdy place where their Grandma used to shop.

But in its day, A&P transformed American retailing several times over. The company, then known as the Great American Tea Company, introduced mail-order shopping in the 1860s. In the 1890s, it developed the concept of handing out reward coupons with each purchase, an idea that soon had millions of housewives collecting trading stamps to exchange for lamps and crockery. Discount shopping as we know it today originated with A&P in 1912, despite the objections of Boston attorney Louis D. Brandeis, not yet on the Supreme Court, who thought consumers would be confused if a product did not sell at the same price everywhere. "The evil results of price-cutting are far-reaching," Brandeis warned.

For more than four decades, from 1920 into the 1960s, A&P was the largest retailer in the world. It may also have been the most controversial. With stores in 3,800 towns, supplied by its own state-of-the-art bakeries and macaroni plants, dairies and salmon canneries, it squeezed costs out of the food distribution system and consistently undercut mom-and-pop grocers. A&P put fear into the hearts of small-town merchants. The earliest radio talk show hosts built their audiences by inveighing against it. State legislatures tried to tax it out of business. When that did not stop it from cutting prices, many states limited discounting by requiring minimum mark-ups on every single item in the store.

Washington got into the act, too. The literature lionizing Franklin Roosevelt as the first pro-consumer president ignores his support for a 1936 law intended to prohibit manufacturers from granting volume discounts, as well as the fact that his Justice Department sued A&P for selling food too cheaply—and won in court. As late as the 1950s, the federal government was still trying to break A&P into pieces, claiming that it was "impervious to competition."

Washington needn't have bothered. Competition carried the day. More aggressive grocers pushed A&P to the sidelines, but now they, too, are being pushed aside. The supermarket, a format A&P pioneered in the 1930s, is old hat. A host of innovators, from deep discounters to organic food chains to drug stores touting packaged foods to glitzy gourmet emporia, has the food retail industry in turmoil. If you shop for groceries, this is a wonderful development. If you're trying to sell them, life won't get any easier.

Marc Levinson is author of The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America.