In 1931, Charlotte had hit its stride. Over the past decade, it had established itself as the leading commercial center for both Carolinas and, with a population of 82,700, it had overtaken Winston-Salem as the largest city in both states. Downtown department stores like Belk’s, Ivey’s, and Efird’s drew shoppers from miles around. Suburbs surrounding downtown provided housing for the workers in the center city’s new skyscrapers.
While independent food stores were still common, Charlotte had also not missed out on the chain store boom of the 1920s.
Chain stores in the early 1930s often sold no meats or produce (or perhaps a very small assortment in larger stores) and, given a clientele which largely arrived by foot or by streetcar, they operated generally out of small leased stores in commercial strips. Capital investment was low, and it was easy to relocate or close underperforming stores. Thus, there was often great turnover in store locations, and it was also common for branches to locate within a few blocks of another branch if volume dictated it.
In 1931, The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) was operating 40 of its small “economy stores” in Charlotte, half of them downtown within ten blocks of Trade and Tryon Streets. In the 1930s, the area comprising Charlotte’s original four wards was still largely residential.
Charlotte had already begun to suburbanize, though, and half of A&P’s locations were outside the central city. In addition to the twenty downtown units, suburban locations included:
- Dilworth (5 stores)
- Eastover and Myers Park (4)
- Elizabeth (3)
- Wilmore (2)
- Plaza-Central (2)
- Westside/Five Points (2)
- Northside/North Charlotte (2)
The David Pender Grocery Company (Pender’s) had 19 stores in Charlotte in 1931, situated as follows:
- Downtown and the four wards (11 stores)
- Dilworth (3)
- Eastover and Myers Park (2)
- Elizabeth (1)
- Plaza-Central (1)
- Wesley Heights/West Morehead (1)
In third place among the chains, Piggly Wiggly operated nine stores concentrated mostly downtown, in Dilworth, and in Elizabeth. A fourth chain, Fifty-Fifty Stores had three Charlotte locations.
The depression was not kind to the grocery industry. Margins were slim, credit accounts often went unpaid, and many independents were unable to survive the lean years from 1931 to 1935. The chain stores with their bulk purchasing power and lower expenses fared much better, but even they lost stores in many parts of the country.
In Charlotte, however, A&P had actually increased its store count by 1935 from 40 to 43 through new store construction and through the acquisition of two former Pender’s locations. There were also several relocations, including the North Charlotte store.
Pender’s also increased its store count between 1931 and 1935, from 19 to 21. Its relocations showed a slight trend toward suburban locations, but new stores also continued to open downtown.
Newcomers in 1935, all with two stores each, included the following:
- Carolina Stores (one location was a former Piggly Wiggly)
- Economy Grocery Co.
- Reid’s Fine Foods (whose Providence Road location would last for over sixty years before relocating downtown and whose South Boulvard store was a former Piggly Wiggly)
- Tillman’s Groceteria
Piggly Wiggly did not survive the early 1930s in Charlotte. Fifty-Fifty Stores was down to two locations in 1935.
A&P and Pender’s both recorded their largest number of stores ever in Charlotte (and nationwide) around 1935. The subsequent decline in store counts was not due to shrinking sales volume, but to the development of the large self-service supermarket, and the resulting consolidation. Independents and small regional operators had been at the forefront of this trend, but the chains had caught on by the middle to late 1930s.
Nationally, A&P’s store count was cut in half, from 14,000 to 7,000 between 1935 and 1940, while sales volume grew more than 30%. This was almost entirely due to consolidations of old stores into the new supermarket format. In Charlotte, A&P went from 43 down to 19 stores during the same period. Pender’s also cut its store count roughly in half, from 19 to 9 locations.
On 24 February 1938, A&P opened what it called the “A&P Self Service Food Store” in a former Charlotte Exposition building at 100 East Park Avenue, on the border between the Dilworth and Wilmore neighborhoods. This “new system of grocery merchandising” included “floor space of 10,000 square feet with five departments for groceries, meats, dairy products, and coffee.”
This new store replaced as many as four of A&P’s older units in the area, and would remain a part of the neighborhood for nearly four decades until its closing in 1975.
Shortly after the debut of the Park Avenue branch, another A&P self-service store opened at 1426 Central Avenue in the Plaza-Central commercial district. The opening of this store alsso facilitated another bit of North Carolina grocery history as well, as it freed up an older A&P unit a block east at 1508 Central. In this space, former A&P manager W.T. Harris opened his first store, the genesis of the Harris Teeter chain which would eventually eclipse A&P as the dominant grocery retailer in Charlotte.
A large self-service A&P branch also opened at the intersection of Queens and Providence Roads in 1938. This location would last longer than any other A&P in Charlotte, becoming the last of the chain’s branches to close in 1997. And even today it serves as a Harris Teeter Express branch.
In 1937, another new A&P opened at 1957 East 7th Street. This one would also have a long life, surviving as an A&P unit into the early years of the 1970s. This same taxpayer block, adjacent to Stanley Drug in the Elizabeth area, also contained a Pender’s branch which lasted through the early 1950s.
Pender’s got into the supermarket game as well, with its newly-christened Big Star stores. The first of these stores opened in Greensboro in 1937, while Charlotte’s first two opened downtown at 209 North College Street, and on the edge of Dilworth at 916 East Morehead Street in about 1939. Over time, many of the smaller and older Pender units would be re-branded as Little Star stores.