Work Journal 4/20


I’ve become more and more interested in the idea of social status or community involvement as a means not by which to advertise the quality of a store’s food but through which a grocery can make itself known as a brand; by creating a public image entirely separated from the food that it sells.

I was searching through the Swem catalog for books that might shed some more light on grocery store advertising and what I perceive as a shift toward the public appearance of a grocery store’s identity. What makes a grocery attractive to a customer besides the quality of the food, the architecture of the store, or customer service? What makes a person drive in one direction rather than another when they are most likely getting products that are interchangeable with products from another grocery store? In one sense the standardization of food has been a boon for variety and accessibility but it has also created a grocery store culture increasingly dependent on creating an image that has little to do with the quality or nature of the food being sold. I found an Economic Research Report put out by the United States Department of Agriculture entitled “The U.S. Food Marketing System: Recent Developments, 1997-2006.” claiming that rising competition from non-traditional sectors of the market like supercenters (Wal-mart) and drugstores (CVS, Rite-Aid) has created a need for grocery stores to redefine their images. However we could just as easily insert the farmer’s market or convenience stores as competitors who are forcing traditional grocery stores to advertise themselves as socially responsible.


“ In such a competitive domestic food market, food companies are attempting to differentiate themselves from the competition by reporting voluntary activities that demonstrate social responsibility and by more-tailored advertising campaigns and product offerings.”


The report goes on to detail phenomena like big grocery store mergers (The Delhaize Group, Belgian owner of Food Lion/Bloom comes to mind) and the corporate social responsibility movement which is present on the websites of almost all of Williamsburg’s grocery stores owned by larger companies.


Which brings us to the question of what grocery stores, the farmer’s market, and convenience stores are trying to sell us? It’s food of course but can we still tell a difference in the food that comes from one store over another? Isn’t quality the bottom line or are we putting something else higher up on the ladder? Customer service, social responsibility platforms, architecture, atmosphere; why do we go to one grocery store over another? From the older residents I’ve talked to I get the sense that customer service has always been the number one priority and I heard the same idea reiterated when I interviewed the store manager of Bloom. People want to feel comfortable when the buy their food and they want to do it in a place where the people are friendly, familiar, and eager to help them. In our age of increasing standardization and universalization of food it is less about the food itself and more about us, how we feel and whether we enjoy the act of buying the food? Would we travel miles and miles to buy the best quality food from someone we didn’t like or who was outwardly antagonistic? I’m not sure I’m ready to say we don’t care about the quality of what we eat anymore but it is becoming more and more apparent to me that people have more important things on their minds when they step inside a grocery store.





Wow! I’ve stumbled across what may be my most interesting piece of research yet. The Trader Joe’s Adventure: turning a unique approach to business into a retail and cultural phenomenon. An entire book filled with the self-edited narrative of Trader Joe’s. Essentially a book long piece of propaganda advocating the superiority of the Trader Joe’s approach which boils down to targeted vertical integration the book is an interesting cultural artifact in itself. There is an enormous amount of very interesting material that I think will serve me well in light of the fact that they grant no interviews. But I could not believe some of the things that were written in this book and all done in a relaxed, humorous tone that sounded like a pandering brochure. Take the tone of a sentence like “you’ll come to understand how this underdog David is on its way to becoming a Goliath of the retailing world” (xi) with sections admitting that Trader Joe’s is owned by a secretive foreign company Albi which was forced by new regulations in Germany since 2000 to open up the books a little bit and that one of the Albrecht brothers (owners of the chain) was kidnapped in a bizarre and secretive stand-off that lasted almost 17 days. This all comes in the didactic chapter entitled “Operate Under the Radar”.

But I found one of the most interesting sections to be a short paragraph on the typical Trader Joe’s customer: “Customers of Trader Joe’s are as unique as the chain itself. They are not shoppers who value convience, low prices, cigarettes, and six packs. Instead Trader Joe’s has been called the supermarket for both out-of-work PhD’s and those who are overeducated and underpaid.” (viiii) I was surprised by these overt class distinctions and the store’s desire to distance itself from the lower classes who smoke and drink alcohol. Instead Trader Joe’s is “A dream grocer for yuppie epicures in search of Tasmanian feta cheese and carrot ginger dressing” (viii). Contrary to the impulses of other stores Trader Joe’s seems perfectly content with labeling itself an upper crust store and they are willing to ignore the business of the underprivileged. You can see this reflected in the location of the store, alone away from residential areas and in the demographics of the store when you visit.  



In his surprisingly interesting book, The American Grocery Store: The Business Evolution of an Architectural Space,  James Mayo analyzes the evolution of the form of the modern store tracing it back to the first institutions meant for food dissemination in America, public markets. He traces the transition of their ownership from public to private and then the rise of the middleman, the grocery merchant, who by virtue of his ability to spend time creating an attractive stand forced the farmer out of the market. The book analyzes the specific architectural elements that helped further the evolution of markets like iron and steel framed structures and the strategic placement and regulation of markets by public and private commissions. Numerous connections can be made to Williamsburg today with its farmer’s market model as a return to that aesthetic of a bustling public market in which vendors sell their own foods, without the evolutionary capitalist developments traced in the book. In my research, the first city directory is dated 1898 states “Williamsburg had perhaps more general stores than any other town of its size in the State: There are two wholesale houses and more than twenty retail grocery and general merchandise stores, and two drugstores. The capital invested ranges from $300 to $20,000.” P. 17 of 1898 directory. It seems at the turn of 20th century Williamsburg was already well established in what Mayo calls the transformation of general store into grocery store. He points to railroads as the main facilitator of this ability to keep a sustainable stock of food and to reduce prohibitive transport costs. It took relatively little capital to open and sustain a grocery store near a major railroad. This certainly seems to have had an impact in the case of Williamsburg, but at the beginning of the 20th century there are already wholesale food distributors in the area and the birth of the chain store (Mayo’s next chapter) is the primary transition I am interested in.

                The main development that created the rise in the grocery store business model was bulk buying, dealing with food manufacturers, and cheap transportation costs. The chain store had the same types of advantages over the independently owned country store that the food merchant had over the farmer. Chain store owners could pool resources from different stores (transportation, machinery), that had unified planning systems, and they could design an overall company image. Mayo points out that one of the main advantages was the psychological advantage chain stores had over independents in that “The consistent image was a sign of security to people who moved, and newspaper advertising using the company’s logo helped to reinforce people’s confidence” (Mayo, 80). “The independent grocers did not have such a psychological edge, and they had to attract people either by the store’s location or by local reputation. Every store added to the chain helped to further the company image by increasing the probability that people would see more that one of the company’s store. With systematic repetition of a chain store’s image in its building designs, delivery wagons, and advertising, chain store owners began to capture the public’s attention, which eventually resulted in their increased willingness to shop in the chain stores.” (Mayo, 80) I’m going to stop now because I am essentially just writing my paper on the blog.

This week I need to transcribe my interview with Dan Williams, organize/scan my photos (contact Mary Ann about the url that I neglected to open and have now lost containing the scanned pictures from the CW archive), and maybe do some follow up talking with Frances Baker and Dan Williams, especially on the issue of store layout and image creation.

2 Responses to “Work Journal 4/20”

  1. 1 Matt Hanson April 27, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Good writing. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed my Google News Reader..

    Matt Hanson

  2. 2 iaknig April 27, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Will–fascinating stuff. You might want to give a quick look at Daniel Scroop, “The Anti-Chain Store Movement and the Politics of Consumption,” American Quarterly 60:4 (December 2008), which should be available on-line via Swem. It details some of the protests again chain stores in the 30s (especially in the South) and what happened to populist anxiety over chains and how that history may connect with more recent concerns about chains. It’s not exclusively about grocery stores, but they do figure prominently.

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The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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