Charting the Murky Prehistory of the Retail Supercenter
The “supercenter,” occasionally identified by its European designation, the “hypermarket,” is a retail format most American shoppers associate with Walmart. First appearing in the late 1980s—the sunny and deeply capitalist Reagan era—and exploding in the 1990s and 2000s, the Walmart Supercenter dominates the big-box discount market. Walmart, in fact, is not only among the top brick-and-mortar retailers, but also does the highest volume of grocery retailing.
The first Walmart Supercenter opened in 1988, but it was inspired by a 1987 test concept that Walmart called, after the European name, Hypermarket. The Hypermarket, with some tweaks, became the Supercenter. And that, you might think, is how the supercenter concept was introduced in the United States. Walmart itself suggests so. “The Hypermart was one of the earliest ‘combination stores’—designed to house grocery and general merchandise alongside one another,” the company boasts. Noting the Hypermarket’s carnival-like atmosphere and mix of diverse departments and services (pared down for the later Supercenter concept), they write, “If this wild variety sounds strange now, imagine how it must have seemed in 1980s middle America!”
But this is not quite the case. The retail format we now call the supercenter existed in various incarnations as far back as the early 1960s or late 1950s. But for whatever reason—despite the explosion of consumerism in the postwar era—the idea of a supermarket and discount department store under one roof simply didn’t stick. Various attempts, some by grocery chains and others by department store chains, fizzled. The history of the concept provides a view of a fascinating and obscure bit of American retail evolution.
The original supercenters came in many shades and flavors. It’s a bit like the plethora of automobile manufacturers in the early days of the car era, or the huge variety of personal computer manufacturers or assemblers in the 1990s. If you were to map it, it would look like the charts of branching species in particularly active periods of evolution, when many related creatures coexisted and separated into different lineages, with few survivors today.
Some proto-supercenters were cobbled together out of adjacent discount stores and grocery stores. The best example of this was the co-location of Bradlees discount stores with Stop & Shop supermarkets, following the grocery chain’s acquisition of the discount chain in 1961. The stores were typically just next to each other in strip plazas, although some locations joined the two halves with an interior doorway. Dividing walls between the discount and grocery departments, usually also with separate checkout areas, were common in this period. Unbroken, common-area sales floors were unusual.
Some supercenters arose not from a discount department store getting into groceries, but from a grocery store getting into general merchandise. Of these, Meijer is probably the most notable. Still a beloved chain in the Midwest, it was originally a grocery-only chain, but in 1962 it launched a large, modern supercenter format. (The company originally called the new store type “Thrifty Acres.”) Unsurprisingly, Meijer hints that they invented the concept: “Sixty years ago Hendrik and Fred Meijer opened a store in Grand Rapids called ‘Thrifty Acres’—and pioneered the American supercenter.”
There’s another branch of the supercenter evolutionary tree that’s even lesser known, but perhaps more interesting: the monumental drug store. One of these several proto-supercenter chains was Super S, a Safeway concept. Others included Kroger’s SupeRX and Stop & Shop’s MediMart.
These stores, usually next to but walled off from their co-located grocery stores, were essentially “food/drug combination stores,” with a somewhat greater focus on general merchandise. (The Super S/Safeway combos, like many early supercenters, had an interior doorway linking the halves together, but did not share checkouts or an undivided sales floor.)
What is interesting, however, is that this variant of the superstore lacked most of the departments of a discount department store. Most of these quasi-superstores failed, with the drug/general merchandise entities spun off, and frequently ending up as CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, or Eckerd locations. (Though today’s chain pharmacies are generally smaller and more drug-focused than this older generation of drug chains.) The Chicago-area Jewel-Osco food/drug chain is one of the only surviving enterprises of this type.
Yet despite the frequent failure of this arrangement in the 1960s, it was ahead of its time. These “super” grocery/drug pairings were essentially what we would now call supermarkets: a core grocery store augmented by a pharmacy counter and a smaller dry goods, seasonal goods, or home goods section where one might pick up wrapping paper, inexpensive kitchen gadgets, small appliances, and occasional off-brand televisions or home electronics. Those were not things that grocery stores, typically under 20,000 square feet, usually sold.
Who actually invented the supercenter is a disputed question, like the question of who invented the self-serve supermarket itself (A&P? Piggly-Wiggly? King Kullen?), or some ubiquitous dish like General Tso’s chicken.
Between the three types outlined above—the department store getting into groceries, the grocery store expanding into other goods, and the monumental drug store—a raft of retailers introduced supercenter-like concepts between the late 1950s and the 1970s. They all resembled the modern type to one extent or another.
Meijer was perhaps the one that most closely resembles today’s giant retail centers. It is also almost certainly the longest continuously operating supercenter chain. But many other lesser-known local or regional retailers were experimenting with the same concept in the same era. Two small New Jersey-area chains, Valley Fair and Great Eastern Mills, operated very large hybrid grocery-discount stores in the early 1960s, though I cannot determine if they were fully connected. The accounts I can find state that these stores consisted of leased departments, as did many of these early ventures, making them something like a hybrid between a flea market and a modern big-box supercenter. (One online commenter who worked at a Great Eastern as a teen in the 1970s remembers letting mice and snakes from the pet department into the beauty parlor through a hole in the wall dividing them.)
Two Guys, another New Jersey discount chain from the late 1950s, also featured supermarket sections. Modell’s, the now–fully online sporting goods retailer, once maintained a handful of discount store-grocery hybrids, now nearly forgotten. (Read the comments on this nostalgic article.) Korvette’s, a New York-area discount chain, partnered with the grocery chain Hill’s to offer proto-supercenters. (They even shared a single sign.) At one point, Korvette’s owned and operated its own supermarkets, which it co-located with some of its discount stores.
Some articles identify Pennsylvania-area Laneco as the inventor of the supercenter concept, and some report that a visit to the “super store” Laneco opened in 1964 inspired Sam Walton, who met with company founder Ray Bartolacci Sr.—though Walton would sit quietly with this inspiration for over two decades. Bartolacci definitely wasn’t the first to open a supercenter—Meijer’s “Thrifty Acres” opened two years before, and other proto-examples go back further—but perhaps he was the first to conceive it, and similarly sat on it for years.
Some of these ventures may date to the very late 1950s. Some approached the contemporary benchmark of 200,000 square feet. Most of them failed. Determining which one invented the concept is almost the wrong question: What we’re seeing is the equivalent of a fossil record. “Was Great Eastern Mills a supercenter or something else?” is like asking “Was the archaeopteryx a bird or a dinosaur?” The supercenter was not created; it evolved.
Figuring all of this out is not just a matter of reading the “supercenter” entry in Wikipedia. This retail history is largely forgotten and has not been fully and centrally recorded. It requires real research, which is to say, doing history.
And most of these examples are just in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region. There was very likely a whole cast of forgotten, experimental proto-supercenters all over midcentury America.
When my parents moved to sleepy, semirural Central New Jersey in the early 1990s, they encountered a Laneco grocery/discount store hybrid. It turns out this was not a recent Walmart copycat, but rather one of the last surviving stores from the supercenter’s decades-old, dead-end evolutionary line—a vestige of its prehistory.
The failure of the early supercenters is often attributed to the considerable differences between department-store retailing and grocery retailing. Groceries notoriously have razor-thin profit margins—and they can go bad. Managing both retail channels effectively and profitably was very difficult. The inconsistent and only partial integration between the two halves in most of the various early implementations, which sometimes differed even within chains, made the concept unnecessarily confusing. The proof of the pudding is, in this case, in the lack of eating: They must not have been very great places to shop, or they wouldn’t be nearly forgotten.
Sam Walton very likely understood and observed these challenges. He watched and learned, as the concept proliferated and then fizzled. And then, in the late 1980s, when few of the old supercenters still existed, his company unveiled an expertly crafted version of the concept that now dominates the market. Meijer (and the comparatively tiny Laneco chain) turned out to be just about the only other supercenters that Walmart encountered during its rapid expansion during the 1990s and 2000s. Walmart effectively allowed its would-be competitors to test-run this tricky retail segment for them.
It also helped that digital technology had matured by this point. In 1983 Walmart became an early adopter of barcode scanning at checkout, and they had been refining computerized inventory systems since the late 1960s. These technologies no doubt eased the difficulty of managing two very different retail segments.
So not only did Walmart not invent the supercenter; it was among the last of the discount department stores to experiment with the concept. While the idea is now practically synonymous with the company, Walmart stood on the shoulders of faltering giants who are worth remembering in their own right.