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Friday, July 31, 2009

The Great A&P forgot what made it great.

The A&P sign came down today at our neighbourhood strip mall. Soon the Metro sign will go up. It seems like an excellent time to republish a post looking at the rise and fall of A&P, once the world's food distribution giant.


While cleaning the garage today I uncovered a dusty, forgotten, cardboard box filled with ancient copies of the Reader's Digest. The February 1948 issue had an article, condensed from Fortune, entitled "The Great A&P."

In 1948 the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company was the biggest single buyer, distributor and seller in the world of all but a few food products. A&P accounted for ten percent of the total food store sales in the United States with sales of two billion dollars, just about equal to the combined totals of their five biggest competitors.

Back then A&P owned two huge laundries for keeping their many uniforms clean. They used so many labels, they owned their own printing plant. A&P had their own Alaskan fishing fleet enabling them to deliver, for the first time, vast quantities of fresh and frozen seafood deep into the American Midwest.

A&P operated 37 bakeries in the U.S. and two in Canada. They baked more cakes and fried more doughnuts than anyone else – nearly 2,000,000 a day. And A&P was no slouch when it came to bread either; They baked 1,000,000 loaves a day.

According to the Digest, despite the massive amount of baked goods produced, A&P made allowances for regional preferences: bitter-chocolate icings east of the Mississippi, sweet chocolate west; mostly white bread in the west, 25 different varieties in the east.

Eggs were candled, graded and quickly sold at the peak of freshness. The east got medium-light yolks while those in the west were a deeper colour. Bostonians got premium brownshelled eggs while New Yorkers got the white eggs they demanded.

Attacked under the antitrust laws in the States, even its detractors conceded that A&P's savings on mass buying and inhouse production were being passed on to consumers.

In the early '30s the number of A&P stores peaked at about 16,000 and then the slow decline set in. In the '60s A&P retreated from the west coast, selling their stores to Safeway. In the '90s the shrivelling giant pulled out of Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Today, thanks to "Fresh Thinking Since 1859", A&P operated about 460 stores.

By 2007, A&P, the chain that once bragged that it had an approach to business that "made deserts bloom" had dropped about 21 notches in food store standings and its days of dominance in the food industry were long gone. The few remaining stores were now all centred in the American northeast.

The article ended by saying A&P, the great discounter, was firmly attached to "the one great principle – the selling of more for less..."

I was but an unsteady toddler when the Digest article was written. Today, I am a retired geezer with a fading memory, but A&P’s memory faded long before mine. In 2005 Metro Inc., the successful Quebec food retailer, acquired A&P Canada. Soon all Canadian stores will be rebadged with the Metro name.

Ironically, ten years before their sale to Metro, A&P Canada opened, with great fanfare, its first discount food store, Food Basics, designed to attract customers by offering better value and lower prices.

A&P lost its way, forgetting that it, The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, was the original discount food store dedicated to the "the one great principle – the selling of more for less . . . "

2 comments:

  1. in the states, Great A&P is celebrating its 150th anniversary with super promotions. It is offering A&P quality products such as chocolate chunk cookies, peppermint melt candies, spices, coffee, orange pekoe tea and pop corn in distinctive tin cans. The values at all banners, including Food Basics, Waldbaums' Pathmark and SuperFresh, are amazing, with more to come, heading towards the October official celebration of 150 glorious years selling fantastic, fresh food at great savings.

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  2. "150 glorious years," or says the A&P computer hitting every site that mentions the "Great" A&P. All too weird. Someone should program the robo-hitter to ignore Canada as A&P has pulled out, selling its stores to Metro, a Quebec food store chain.

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