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Revisiting the Strangest Moments in Food Retailing

Revisiting the Strangest Moments in Food Retailing

We've all experienced some unusual things in recent years, including a recession of historic severity, store formats that break the mold, and offbeat product trends.

But none of these things compare to the oddest developments that food retailing has ever encountered. Don't believe me? I identified some of these in a column a few years ago, and, as it turns out, they still stand the test of time.

So, for those who think they've seen or heard everything, I now present some of the really weirdest developments in food retailing (all reported over the years in SN).

• In 1952, a supermarket chain called Thomas Roulston offered three live baby elephants for sale in its Elmont, Long Island, store at $17,500 each or $49,999.98 for all three. The chain's president told SN the retired circus animals were housebroken and could be gift wrapped and delivered.

• A Nebraska grocer in 1960 created a conveyor-belt system so consumers could immediately send products to the cashier as they shopped, fostering immediate checkout and bagging. The grocer conceded, however, that another advantage of the system was that shoppers spent more when they didn't see a pile of products building in their cart.

• A grateful shopper bequeathed $10,000 in her will to a produce clerk at Daitch Crystal Dairies in 1964 as gratitude for good customer service. You might call it a textbook case of service to die for.

• A national chain found a good use for the new medium of television in 1954. It placed inexpensive dummy television cameras in its stores to deter shoplifters. Possibly the earliest attempt at reality TV.

• In 1954, a supermarket company in Charlotte tried to speed shopping by increasing to five the number of employees at each checkstand (because it didn't have space to add checkstands). Under the new plan, each checkstand had both a caller and checker communicating by earphones, a cashier and two baggers. It's not clear if there was any room for the shopper.

• A cover story in September 1956 reported on the opportunity for food stores in the Soviet Union to reduce their notorious overcrowding by adopting elements of the U.S. self-service model. Ultimately, it was long lines, possibly even more than the Cold War, that had shoppers seeing red.

• A Midwestern store operator interviewed in 1968 predicted that supermarket service departments including bakery, deli and other perimeter sections were on the road to extinction. Our 20/20 hindsight tells us it was probably this operator's business model on the path to extinction.

As a footnote to that last item, we've found that numerous other predictions by executives over the years turned out to be completely wrong. Here's one more example: In the early 1970s, SN reported that many food retailers and other industry leaders believed the discount retail trend had passed its prime. Try telling that to today's consumers.

In any case, let's end with a wish rather than a prediction. Here's hoping that we all live and work long enough to see many more unusual things, preferably those that give us a laugh.