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.