An examination of how the A&P food stores dominated American retailing decades before Wal-Mart.
Levinson (The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, 2006, etc.) delves into the origin and growth of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, known informally at "the A&P." It began as a little tea shop in New York City in the mid 1860s, the brainchild of businessmen George Gilman and George Huntington Hartford. But as the shop grew into several and then many, with far more diverse merchandise than tea, the Hartford family became identified as the scions of the A&P, eclipsing the Gilman name and accumulating massive personal wealth. Throughout the narrative, Levinson demonstrates how innovative retailing strategies and price-cutting to force out mom-and-pop competitors hurt local economies while simultaneously making food more convenient and affordable to purchase for individual consumers. The end result, the supermarket, counted as the fourth retailing revolution through which the Hartfords guided the A&P. In the 1890s, they had altered a tea company into a grocery-store chain. In the second stage, just before World War I, they changed the grocery business from a haphazard enterprise of uncertain profitability into a large-scale operation with costs and prices carefully monitored. The third stage began in 1925, as they instituted the concept of vertical integration to benefit from economies of scale and raise profit margins by increasing sales volume. Mom-and-pop businesses, championed by Texas Congressman Wright Patman, fought the increasing domination of the A&P, and President Roosevelt's antitrust lawyers also sought to diminish the giant retailer's oligopoly. But it was not until the deaths of the Hartford brothers that the A&P began a decline that Levinson considers surprisingly precipitous. The decade of the 1960s sealed the company's unhappy fate, as other supermarket chains, plus Wal-Mart, became ascendant.
A well-conceived, lively history with obvious contemporary relevance.