The Early Years:
In 1859, George Huntington Hartford and George Gilman entered the mail-order tea business from a storefront and warehouse at 31 Vesey Street in New York City. The Great American Tea Company grew steadily over the next decade and was renamed The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company in 1870.
Hartford’s sons, John and George, came into the family business in the 1880s, the same decade that the company begain marketing its first private label brands, including Eight O’Clock Coffee. By the turn of the century, there were over 20 stores in the chain.
In 1912, the first A&P Economy Store opened. The brainchild of John Hartford, this format relied on severe cost-cutting, standardization of layout, and the elimination of credit accounts and delivery.
Economy stores were small and often located on a secondary street rather than in a more expensive Main Street location. Hartford insisted on short-term leases wit renewal options, so that the stores could pick up and move on short notice as conditions dictated. Some carried the bare minimum of produce items, and most operated with one or two employees.
The format was wildly successful, and the chain had grown from 585 stores in 1913 to more than 4500 stores by 1920, and to over 15,000 stores all over the east coast and Midwest by 1930. In the early 1930ss, the first California stores were opened, adding some credibility to the company name.
During the 1920s, meat markets and more produce offerings were added to larger and less spartan stores, the result of an increasingly affluent clientele.
In 1929, Hartford’s sound economic policies allowed the chain to weather the stock market relatively unscathed. The 1930s, however, were difficult years, as profit margins declined and price became the primary determinant of food purchases.
The first King Kullen and Big Bear stores, widely regarded as the genesis of the supermarket area, were located in A&P’s home turf of New York and New Jersey. A&P reacted cautiously at first, finally opening a “supermarket” of its own in Braddock PA in 1936.
By 1939, the chain had begun to move much more decisively, operating 1100 supermarkets and closing thousands of the older “economy stores”. Between 1936 and 1940, A&P halved its number of stores (to just over 6000) while increasing its sales by more than half. By 1949, the store count was down to just over 4500, while sales had skyrocketed.
Through the 1950s, A&P continued to be America’s dominant grocery retailer (and at one point, its largest retailer of any sort), but some disturbing trends were starting to emerge. The company’s conservative policies were not in tune with the retail boom of the 1950s, and A&P’s largely urban (and aging) store base was concentrated in urban areas rather than the growing suburbs. This would be a major issue for the company in the ensuing years.
In addition, both John and George Hartford died in the 1950s, more or less ending the company’s connection to its founding family, and allowing it to go public. The Harford heirs were more concerned with large dividends than with the grocery business, and the resulting lack of investment initiated a period of stagnation from which A&P never fully recovered.
Some new stores were being constructed during this period. To celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary in 1959, the red brick cupola-ed “Centennial” prototype was unveiled. Much like Safeway’s “Marina” prototype the same year, this store design would define the company for years to come. Inexplicably, though, a high proportion of these new stores were still located in older urban areas. While other chains were moving to the suburbs in advance of their customers, A&P seemed to be running five to ten years behind the migratory patterns of its own clientele.
By the 1960s, stores were stale, sales were flat, and the midwestern and west coast divisions were struggling. A well-publicized corporate reorganization in 1968 and 1969 did little to stem the decline, and the next two decades were defined by declining sales, closing stores, and failed format changes. Among the stores closed were the entire Southern California operation, in 1969, which eliminated A&P as a contender in the fastest-growing market in the country.
The first of these new formats was A-Mart, a discount operation used in approximately 150 larger stores in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Results were mixed, and when Kmart threatened a trademark infringement lawsuit, the project was largely abandoned.
The next was WEO (for “Warehouse Economy Outlet”), a deep-discount warehouse format. The first experimental location opened in 1971 in Pennsauken NJ and performed reasonably well. The format required a larger, high-volume location. About half of A&P’s units, many of them old urban stores and small-town locations, some dating from the late 1930s, didn’t really qualify. Nevertheless, A&P opted in 1972 to try the experiment chain-wide.
Unfortunately, price was perhaps the least of A&P’s problems in the early and mid 1970s. Labor costs were high, store volumes were low (too low for a warehouse approach to work),and shoppers regarded the stores as dirty, understocked, and overpriced. And a takeover bid from Gulf-Western only complicated matters.
From 1972 to 1974, A&P closed nearly 800 stores. The real meltdown, however, came in 1975, when the chain shrank from 3400 stores to slightly more than 2000. By the end of the 1970s, A&P was operating a little over 1500 stores in the US. It was never the same again.
The Assorted “Rebirths”:
In 1979, the Hartford heirs sold a controlling interest in A&P to the Tengelmann Group of West Germany. Between 1980 and 1982, even more stores were closed, with many regions abandoned entirely, bringing the total store count below 1000 in 1982, when the company returned to profitability.
The acquisition ultimately resulted in somewhat aggressive expansion plans and yet more new store formats.
The first PLUS stores opened in 1979 and 1980, as an American adaptation of a German bare-bones discount concept. It didn’t work, and the experiment was abandoned after only a couple of years.
The Family Mart, launched in Greenville SC in 1977, was more successful. This was a combination store format in the southeast, featuring 55,000 square-foot stores selling food and general merchandise. These stores were built in selected southern markets, and performed reasonably well, although most appear to have closed by 1990.
Super Fresh was introduced in Philadelphia in 1982, emphasizing produce and customer service. This banner is still used on A&P’s mid-Atlantic stores.
A particularly interesting format was the A&P Futurestore, the first of which were opened in the New Orleans area in 1984. These upscale stores featured a stark, black and white décor, with service departments in the center of the store and a glass atrium storefront. In fact, they were very attractive units, but the Futurestore banner was retired after just a couple of years.
Also unveiled around 1985 was the Sav-a-Center banner, which was used on less upscale southern stores, some of them A&P conversions and some new construction. At one point, markets like Charlotte NC had A&P, Sav-a-Center, and Futurestore locations simultaneously. Eventually, most of the futurestores were re-branded with the dominant banner in their area.
Acquisitions during the 1980s included 17 Stop & Shop stores in New Jersey (1981), the Kohl’s chain in Wisconsin (1982), Dominion Stores in Canada (1982), Shopwell/The Food Emporium, and later Waldbaum’s, in New York (1986), and Farmer Jack in Michigan (1989).
By the 1990s, longtime house brands like Ann Page and Jane Parker had been retired. Eight O’Clock Coffee was sold off in 2003. And the somewhat healthier company operated stores under close to a dozen different names around the country.
All the same, downsizing and fine-tuning were still happening. Most southern regions, except for the New Orleans area, were finally abandoned in the late 1990s. The Kohl’s stores in Wisconsin were shuttered in 2003, and the northern New England stores were eliminated the same year. The profitable Canadian division was sold in 2005.
As of 2006, The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company’s 15,000 stores had dwindled to just over 400, operating under the A&P, A&P Super Foodmart, Waldbaum’s, Food Emporium, Super Fresh, Farmer Jack, Sav-A-Center and Food Basics names. The company was geographically limited to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Michigan, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia. The once-proud name no longer reflects the reality of what is now a small, regional grocery chain. But the worst was yet to come. One by one, the southern and midwestern operations (including the oldest operating store in the chain on Bourbon Street in New Orleans) were sold off or scrapped, and the company became even more regional in nature. In 2007, A&P purchased rival Pathmark to expand its positioning in the region.
A 2010 bankruptcy was the beginning of the end, and was followed by more closures, although the company did emerge from bankruptcy as a privately-held concern. In July 2015, A&P filed for bankruptcy again, this time with the apparent intention of liquidating all its assets. Numerous stores are in the process of being sold To Alberstons (ACME), Ahold (Stop & Shop), and Key Foods. Others are on the market. It seems the end is near for the 156-year-old company that was once America’s largest retailer.