Cornering the Market: Independent Grocers and Innovation in American Small Business

Cornering the Market: Independent Grocers and Innovation in American Small Business

Cornering the Market: Independent Grocers and Innovation in American Small Business

Cornering the Market: Independent Grocers and Innovation in American Small Business

Synopsis

In popular stereotypes, local grocers were avuncular men who spent their days in pickle-barrel conversations and checkers games; they were backward small-town merchants resistant to modernizing impulses. Cornering the Market challenges these conventions to demonstrate that nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century grocers were important but unsung innovators of business models and retail technologies that fostered the rise of contemporary retailing. Small grocery owners revolutionized business practices from the bottom by becoming the first retailers to own and operate cash registers, develop new distribution paths, and engage in transforming the grocery trade from local enterprises to a nationwide industry.
Drawing on storekeepers' diaries, business ledgers and documents, and the letters of merchants, wholesalers, traveling men, and consumers, Susan V. Spellman details the remarkable achievements of American small businessmen, and their major contributions to the making of "modern" enterprise in the United States. The development of mass production, distribution, and marketing, the growth of regional and national markets, and the introduction of new organizational and business methods fundamentally changed the structures of American capitalism. Within the walls of their stores, proprietors confronted these changes by crafting solutions centered on notions of efficiency, scale, and price control. Without abandoning local ties, they turned social concepts of community into commercial profitability. It was a powerful combination that businesses from chain stores to Walmart continue to exploit today.

Excerpt

A few days before Christmas 1896, the Oakland Tribune named August Bjorkman “Proprietor of the Most Modern Grocery Store” in San Leandro, California. The sixty-year-old Swedish immigrant ran a “very large business” in the up-and-coming town, just east across the bay from San Francisco. Bjorkman competed with eight other San Leandro grocers for recognition as one of the city’s “Go-Ahead” businessmen. “Mr. Bjorkman’s store if lifted up and carried off to San Francisco,” the editors boasted, “would be in perfect harmony with one of the best equipped stores in that city.” Bjorkman bought and sold goods as cheaply as merchants in nearby Oakland, and his cosmopolitan trade sent his wagons for the freshest and best merchandise to places such as Fruitvale and Haywards, destinations anywhere from five to fifteen miles from the grocer’s shop. Personalized service distinguished Bjorkman from his rivals: “He attends to the wants of his customers,” observers acknowledged, “sees to it that they get exactly what they order,” and offered amenities that were “prompt and satisfactory always.”

What was it that made Bjorkman’s business modern in 1896? Very little about the grocer or his store seems particularly fresh. Absent from the newspaper’s accolades are mentions of “bigness” and “efficiency,” hallmarks of today’s “modern” trade. Just one year earlier, the Fresno Weekly Republican detailed a similar visit to local grocer Budd T. Scott’s store, noting that Scott had “kept pace with all the modern innovations of the trade.” He carried a “thousand delicacies gathered from every country and clime” displayed “in an attractive manner,” and served shoppers in a “careful and painstaking” fashion. Scott . . .

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