The Great A&P, by Mark Levinson (Hill and Wang)
Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz
Until the late 1920s, the grocery business was a convoluted and balkanized tangle of processors, wholesalers, and brokers that culminated in the mom-and-pop stores that could be found on almost every corner. Such inefficiency meant that the industry employed an enormous number of people (one in 18 nonfarm workers), but also that grocery stores took in roughly 20 cents of every dollar Americans spent; the average urban household paid out a third of its income on food—more than it spent on housing. A&P changed all that. Its nationwide system of small “economy stores,” later “combination stores” (grocery stores with meat departments), and still later supermarkets allowed it to purchase in volume, to eliminate the middlemen (the brokers and wholesalers), and, perhaps most important, to vertically integrate the grocery business, creating its own vast manufacturing-and-distribution network. A&P had its own canneries; its bakeries made more bread than any baking company in America, save one; it imported more coffee and sold more butter and cigarettes than any other retailer in the country. It was easily the largest retailer in America, with more than twice the sales in dollars of the second-largest. Thanks to the techniques that A&P developed (including the then-revolutionary idea in the grocery business of reducing the profits per unit for the sake of making more sales), the share of income that Americans spent on food plunged—and so did the number of firms and jobs in the grocery business. Levinson, who has burrowed deep in the archives, makes this story clear and compelling—and shows why A&P was both a boon to consumers and, in the words of an FDR-era federal prosecutor, “a gigantic blood sucker.” Shades of Walmart?