Seattle’s first self-service grocery chain, Groceteria, opened its Broadway store in the Summer of 1916 at 233 Broadway E, just south of Thomas. It served the neighborhood along with Capitol Hill and Renton Hill stores for a decade before its surprising collapse.
Listen to Rob Ketcherside’s interview with NPR 88.5 KNKX about Seattle’s Groceteria stores and the tragedy of Alvin Monson, from Saturday January 6. It repeats on air Monday January 8 at 7 PM.
It started with retail innovation: Prior to the 1930s creation of supermarkets, food in America was sold at specialty stores focused on individual product types: green grocer (fruits and vegetables), fish monger, butcher, baker, and grocer for example. They were clustered in neighborhood business districts and shared space in public markets. Contrary to the name, only two of the dozen-odd public markets in downtown Seattle were publicly owned. But they all guaranteed one-stop shopping and easy access to streetcar lines. If a Seattleite couldn’t find what they needed near home, they could certainly get it downtown.
After the onset of World War One in mid-1914, inflation set in worldwide. This included a rise in the price of canned and packaged foods that were sold at grocery stores. Grocers immediately felt strain on their service-rich business model. Most stores offered purchase on credit, delivery by horse and buggy and ordering by telephone. Notably “cash groceries” offered no-frills purchases. The standard shopping experience was like a deli: shoppers asked for items at a counter and it was slowly filled from the back while they interacted with one of the many clerks. Stores filled their shelves with piecemeal deliveries by distributors and layers of middlemen.
Within a few years, self-service shopping at chain grocery stores upset the industry. If you know anything about self-service grocery history, then you believe that Piggly Wiggly started it all in Tennessee in late 1916. The Smithsonian believes that. Wikipedia believes that. But it’s wrong. Continue reading