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Supermarket Makeover: 9 Ways Your Old Grocery Store Has Changed

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grocery store

Variety Run Amok

In the 70s, if you wanted an Oreo, you got the chocolate cookie with plain white creamy middle – and that was it.  Now, you’ve got everything from watermelon flavor to mint to pumpkin to peanut butter… and this is just Oreos.  This applies to basically every item on supermarket shelves: whether it’s toilet paper (will it be 10 ply super-absorbent or the shitty 1/2 ply that disintegrates upon application?) or soft drinks (don’t get me started on this seemingly infinite variety), there’s no end to the selection.  The question is: is a mind-boggling array of choices a good thing? Or, perhaps, there is there something to be said for simplicity.


grocery store vintage (1)

Service Denied

There are still a few grocery chains which take your bags to your car and load them, but this used to be standard.  Back in the day, grocery store customers were almost exclusively female.  As a gentlemanly courtesy, stores would help out the “fairer sex” by carrying their groceries for them. Nowadays, women are on their own – I’ve seen poor ladies with desperately trying to maneuver their cart across a gigantic parking lot while holding their little kids.  (And, yes, I help when things look particularly desperate).

Also consider the butcher.  There used to be an actual relationship between regular customers and their butcher.  Now, there’s rarely a guy behind the meats, and so, once again, you’re basically on your own.


grocery store vintage (5)

Size Matters

Remember when the grocery store was just a half-dozen small aisles?  Now, whether it’s a Wal-Mart Super Center, SuperTarget, Publix or Kroger, you’re talking literally over 200,000 square feet of floor space!  This is insane.  I understand the population size has greatly increased, but does this mean we need an aisle the length of a city block entirely devoted to chips? I don’t know about you, but I am literally fatigued, both mentally and physically, after a visit to the local supercenter.  Yes, it’s true that, if they paired down the size of our stores, the masses would rise up and demand their massive chip aisles back; but I, for one, would love a return to a smaller size, even if it means I no longer have 50 options of yogurt flavors.


1975 Grocery Store Aisle

Bye-Bye Bacharach

Many supermarkets still play background music, but it’s not the same.  If it’s there at all, it’s a whisper of its former self.  In the 70s, grocery stores were notorious for pumping up the EZ Listening jams.  Want to hear a peppy instrumental of “Moon River” or a Hammond organ rendition of “You Only Live Twice”? Your local A&P has the playlist of your dreams.


grocery store vintage (1)

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Perhaps the biggest change is the barcode.  It began on June 26, 1974 with first product with a bar code scanned at a check-out counter – a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The rest is history.  Not only can the retailers track their supplies, but the dynamics of the checkout line received a huge makeover.  Those remembering the painful process of punching each product into the cash register can appreciate the ease of a scanner.  That being said, when there were less people and dramatically less products on the shelves, manual checkout wasn’t quite as daunting a task as you’d think.  Plus, every single item on the shelves had their own price sticker, applied lovingly by the pimply-faced stock boy.



You’re Entering the Tabloid Zone

Checkout aisles are a tame and neutered version of their former self.  Now, you have your standard People magazine, maybe an US weekly, and a token health & wellness magazine as well.  Back in the day, this section was stuffed with trashiest of tabloids and the filthiest of lowbrow periodicals imaginable.  You not only had the Weekly World News variety, but also an array of true crime and true romance garbage filling up the racks.  Supermarket checkout was once a cornucopia of sex, violence, lies and conspiracy which could scar the childhood of any poor victim who entered this zone of smut.  Those were the days.


Gardening in the 70s

Produce Section Shrinkage

As incomprehensible as it sounds, the produce section used to comprise nearly half the grocery store.  Now, the vast majority of floor space is devoted to frozen food, cereal, soda, snacks, canned goods – aisle upon aisle of non-perishable cans, boxes and bottles with several freezer aisles at the bitter end.  Attribute this to everyone’s scarcity of time to prepare meals from scratch, plus the rising cost of produce.  Unless it’s derived from government subsidized corn (ex. high fructose corn syrup), it’s likely to be costly, and a whole lot cheaper to just by pre-packaged crap…. which leads to the next point….



The High Cost of Real Food

To get the same amount of calories costs a lot less these days (when adjusted for inflation).  You can get your 1,500 calorie daily intake for a fraction of what it used to cost…. Unless you’re wanting real food.  Those bell peppers are going to cost a pretty penny.  That bag of walnuts is going to break the bank. And don’t even look at the orange juice unless you want to choke.   If you’re thinking exclusively with your pocket book, I’d recommend you head to the macaroni & cheese aisle and top it off with a 2 liter of Vanilla Coke.  The part of the store which used to be the center, the literal “meat and potatoes” of the business, has become a super expensive “luxury aisle”.


kids comics

From Kid-Friendly… to Kid-Nightmare

Would you believe a lot of grocery stores used to have areas for kids to play or just chill with a comic book?  Many stores would have a room or a “pen” where kids were left to behave like Lord of the Flies or enjoy stacks of Sgt. Rock or Casper. I’m sure this is not even legal in today’s world.  Leaving your child unaccompanied by an adult is considered neglect, and is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

By the 1980s most of these oases went away, but children and parents alike were consoled by the arrival of arcade games at the entrance.  You didn’t mind accompanying mom to Kroger or Bruno’s if she gave you a handful of quarters to play Pole Position.  And mom wouldn’t have to put up with your annoying ass either.  It was a win-win (unless you happened to get abducted).  Once the Galagas and Centipedes were removed from grocery stores by the close of the decade, there was no new child-distracter to replace them. Now parents are forced to spend quality time with their loving-dutiful children up and down every aisle – isn’t that great?

  • Michael Laughlin

    I especially liked the part about the tabloids and trashy magazines that used to be prominently displayed at the super markets. I can remember seeing this magazine on the racks when I was out with my Mom.

    • I remember mainly the “True Romance” variety. The headlines were every bit as sleazy as the tabloids and detective rags. I’d stare wide eyed while mom checked out. Probably permanent mental scars from it that I’m not even aware of.

      • The4thStooge

        I remember reading a co-worker’s (Dairy Queen) True Romances, as well as the cheaper varieties, which seemed to be more sordid. One story was about a guy and a pastor entitled “I Was Raped By My Pastor! My Husband’s True Story.” Talk about click, er, page turning bait! Terrible, but you still wanted to read it!

  • The4thStooge

    I KNEW I saw Playboy at the supermarket in 1978! I may have been 3, but I could read, and P-L-A-Y-B-O-Y spelled “did I just dream that or what?” Up on the rack behind the Enquirer about Hitler still being alive (that was a stretch even then!) and of course, Elvis being spotted in Kalamazoo.

    I loved the scanners back when–they’d emit a pleasant “beep” when the scan was correct, and a tri-tone “braap!” when it was wrong. I also remember more smoking than I thought possible, especially when the world’s cutest baby tried to grab a stogie out of a guy’s mouth. The parents then let me hold their child! 3 year old, sure! Hold that baby! (I seem to recall my mother taking over.)

    Thanks for the memories–I spent more time reading Mad Magazine, all the tabloids (I remember when Polly Holliday had a heart attack!) and enjoying all the things that kids today will never get to experience!

  • Cybergranola

    The woman kneeling holding a bunch of some green leafy plant, there’s something unsettling about this photograph. Could it be her expression, or is it the way she is gripping her shovel? Perhaps both? Something tells me there is more then horticulture being promoted.