The Kroger Grocery Empire: Barney’s Blueprint for Success

Regional History, Retailing history, Social History

The history of the Kroger Grocery Company has parallels with the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, another pioneering powerhouse of American food retailing. Both grocery businesses started in the 19th century as tea and coffee purveyors, however Kroger, unlike A&P Tea, has survived through the centuries and still trades today as lucratively as ever. In the 2016 fiscal year Kroger was the largest supermarket chain by revenue in the US (yielding US$115.34 billion). It shares a roost with Walmart at the top of the US retail tree…it is number 2 general retailer behind Walmart in the US, and is the third largest retailer in the world[1].

Origins, growth and expansion of the Kroger name
The man behind the Kroger Company was Bernard Kroger, better known as ‘Barney’. Kroger, the son of German immigrants, got into the retailing world at the basement level – working door-to-door selling coffee first for the Great Northern and Pacific Tea Co and then the Imperial Tea Co. By 1883 Kroger was in business for himself, his first store traded under the name The Great Western Tea Co…soon renamed Kroger Grocery and Baking Co✳. The Cincinnati-based business expanded exponentially into the 20th century, by the end of the 1920s decade Kroger had over 5,500 stores in the US[2].

The Kroger business ethic
Not afflicted with the curse of Hamlet, Barney Kroger was not one to overthink or complicate matters, as his simple motto attested: “Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.” Kroger’s business style was heavily and idiosyncratically micro-managerial, the businessman personally maintained an account book which meticulously recorded all the firm’s financial transactions. Kroger’s business credo was “First: Do it first. When seasonable goods come into the market, have the first. When prices go down, be the first to reduce them. Second: Never sell anything except for just what it is, and don’t sell it then if it isn’t good. Third: Advertise as liberally as business income permits. Fourth: sell on a small margin and make the turnover rapid”. The Ohoian entrepreneur’s pragmatism emphasised “duplicating and reduplicating…what works”[3].

One of Barney Kroger’s most enduring contributions to grocery retail revolves around his minimum cost/high volume approach to trading. He is remembered for introducing the template of the low-cost grocery chain, still much duplicated in modern retailing. Kroger was also innovative in his store design, adding distinct bakery, meat and seafood departments in his grocery stores[4].

In-house food manufacturers
Bread-making was a good example of the Kroger cost minimisation strategy…at variance with most grocers in the early 20th century who purchased the product from independent bakeries, Barney Kroger baked his own bread. This way he could further cut the price for customers and still make a profit. Kroger after the death of Barney has rapidly expanded its own product manufacturing facilities, now making thousands of comestibles within the company[5].

A typical mid-century Kroger store
Merger juggernaut
From the 1950s on Kroger embarked on an ongoing series of mergers with smaller firms to consolidate its market position in the US grocery/supermarket trade. The most significant of these, in 1999, was with Fred Meyer, Inc., then the fifth biggest American grocer. This new acquisition by Kroger saw it reach a new high of 2,200 stores in 31 states, netting the supermarket giant billions in annual revenue[6].

Kroger innovations
Kroger has led the way in retail grocery innovations…the innovations pioneered by the company include ‘firsts’ for a grocery chain, eg, the routine monitoring of product quality and the scientific testing of foods; testing of electronic scanners. As well Kroger was a pioneer in modern consumer research in grocery lines[7].

Kroger’s position today as a market leader in the US grocery and supermarket field (FN1) rests firmly on the solid foundations laid down by its founder Barney Kroger. Contemporary growth by the company has continued a trajectory of diversification well beyond the grocery staple into fuel centres, florists, drug and convenience stores.

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✳ eventually the company name was shortened simply to Kroger

[1] as at December 2015 Kroger operated a total of 2,778 supermarkets and multi-department stores across 34 American states, ‘Kroger’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.org
[2] ibid.
[3] ‘Bernard Heinrich Kroger (1860-1938)’, (Zachary Garrison, 08-Jun-2011), Immigrant Entrepreneurship: 1730 to the Present, www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org; BM Horstman, ‘Barney Kroger: Hard work, marketing savvy won shoppers’, Cincinnati Post, 17-Jun-1999, www.webarchive.org
[4] Horstman, ibid.; ‘Kroger’, Wikipedia, loc.cit.
[5] ‘History of Kroger’, (Kroger), www.thekrogerco.com
[6] Dana Canedyoct, ‘Kroger to Buy Fred Meyer, Creating Country’s Biggest Grocer’, New York Times, 20-Oct-1998, www.nytimes.com
[7] ‘History of Kroger’, loc.cit.

A&P Tea Co: Once Were Giants of the American Grocery Trade

Popular Culture, Regional History, Retailing history

The year 2015 brought an end to one of the most enduring major retailers in the history of United States business. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (universally abbreviated to A&P Tea Co) succumbed after a succession of bankruptcy proceedings played out in the early 2010s (bringing an end to 156 years of continuous retailing in the US).

A&P Tea endgame
The beginnings of A&P Tea’s decline in the retail world harks back as far as the 1950s – the source of the downward trend was its inability to maintain parity with competitors who were opening larger supermarkets that, driven by customer demand, were more modern[1]. Partial sell-offs followed in the seventies and eighties. Things didn’t really improve for the grocery ‘Goliath’ despite sporadic and ephemeral upsurges[2]. In 2010 the company filed for bankruptcy, but were only able to hold on till 2015 when A&P again filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this time being permanently wound up.

A&P store, Westwood, NJ, 1959
According to industry analysts A&P’s demise could be attributed to a misguide focus, and to the company’s failure “to evolve with the changing market”…A&P had a tendency to concentrate on “extracting dollars from its vendors instead of selling to its customers”. This exhibited a woeful neglect when it came to improving the customer experience (George Anderson, editor-in-chief of RetailWire)[3].

The company’s woes were exacerbated by a failure to modernise its look…it doggedly kept its grocery lines to the basics and was disinclined to adapt to changing tastes and interests of consumers with their growing preference for organic, healthy and gourmet foods. Meanwhile its competitors like Whole Foods, The Fresh Market and Kroger were stealing a march on the erstwhile market leader[4].

Humble leather goods origins
Atlantic and Pacific’s company history traces itself back to 1859, founded by George Gilman, as a sideline to his hide and leather importing business. Gilman’s diversification into mail-order tea was so successful that he dropped the leather and Gilman & Co by 1869 had become the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co[5]. A&P Tea’s fortunes rose with the ascent of George Huntington Hartford who assumed control in 1878. George and his sons (affectionately known as “Mr George” and “Mr John”) oversaw the company’s inexorable growth and monopolistic practices[6].

A&P Tea at its zenith
At its peak in the 1930s (with the Hartford brothers still ensconced at the helm), A&P was by far the largest grocery chain in the US with 15,709 stores in 39 of the 48 states plus parts of Canada. The tea and coffee merchants had already diversified into bakeries and pastry and candy shops, and introduced innovations in food retailing such as pre-packaged meats and food-testing laboratories (pioneers of quality assurance)[7]. The Economy Store was another A&P concept: small stores located in secondary streets, away from the main street (comparison with King Kullen), inexpensive “no frills” lines; operated by only one or two staff members; low cost, high volume[8].

Slow to embrace the supermarket concept
The Hartfords were unimpressed by and reluctant to adopt the model of the supermarket, pioneered by King Kullen and others. Finally in 1936 A&P opened their first supermarket in Braddock, PA. Eventually the company’s supermarkets came to replace the increasing obsolete Economy Stores[9].

1928 A&P grocery ad
When it came to reading changing consumer preferences after WWII, A&P Tea, as was the case with F.W. Woolworth, was slow to move its stores from the urban centres to the suburbs, thus falling behind rivals like K-Mart, Safeway and Kroger in this respect. From the 1960s on A&P experimented with discount stores A-Mart (folded as its name was too like K-Mart!) and WEO (Warehouse Economy Outlet) with moderate results[9]…A&P sales continued to flatten out, it continue to jettison stores into the 21st century, with its market share haemorrhaging in the fierce onslaught of rising powerhouses such as Walmart[10].

PostScript: Legacy of the retailing ‘Goliath’
The heights to which Greater Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co rose in its heyday were of Everest proportions. Until 1965 A&P Tea Co was the largest US retailer of any kind…between 1915 and 1975 A&P was the largest food/grocery retailer in the US…until 1982 the company was also America’s largest food manufacturer. According to the Wall Street Journal A&P Tea Co was “as well known as McDonald’s or Google is today” and was lionised in the world of North American retail traders as “Walmart before Walmart”[11]. By the end of the 1920s A&P had become the first retailer to sell US$1 billion worth of goods[12].

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[1] WI Walsh, The Rise and Decline of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (1986)
[2] ibid.
[3] Hayley Fitzpatrick, ‘A&P made one mistake that undermined its business’, Business Insider Australia, 22-Jul-2015, www.businesinsider.com.au
[4] ibid.
[5] Marc Levinson, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, (2011)
[6] A 1946 US Federal Court ruling found the Hartford brothers guilty of illegal restraint of trade by using A&P’s size and market power to keep prices artificially low, ibid.
[7] ‘The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, Inc’, Encyclopedia.com, www.encyclopedia.com
[8] ‘A&P: The Early Years’, Groceteria.com, www.grocetaria.com
[9] ibid.
[10] Levinson, op.cit.
[11] ‘The Great Atlantic Pacific Tea Company’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[12] Levinson, op.cit.