King Kullen, the Price Wrecker, opened in 1930 in Long Island, New York. King Kullen is recognized by the Smithsonian Institute as America’s first supermarket although the business did not use that term. It offered mass merchandising, with a high-volume, low margin model. The founder, Michael Cullen, was a branch manager at Kroger Grocery & Bakery Co. in Illinois who, having his vision rejected by his employers, decided to go it alone. His venture was immensely successful.
The Kroger Grocery & Baking company had 94 small stores in Illinois, USA. Michael Cullen was the manager of those stores, but yearned for bigger things. The King Kullen website describes his vision for the future as: “monstrous stores, size of same to be about forty feet wide and hundred and thirty to a hundred and sixty feet deep, and they ought to be located one to three blocks off the high rent district with plenty of parking space, and same to be operated as a semi-self-service store – twenty percent service and eighty percent self-service.”
In 1929 Cullen wrote to the President of Krogers with a revolutionary proposal, based on reducing margins to sell higher volumes. The letter read, in part, “I want to gross 9% and do a grocery, fruit and vegetable business of $10,000.00 per week, and make a net profit of 2½% on the grocery department, and 3% on the meat department.…”
Krogers ignored his ideas, so Cullen pursued his dreams elsewhere. The store he eventually opened in Long Island, New York, fulfilled the criteria later defined by the Smithsonian Institute as constituting a supermarket: “separate departments; self-service; discount pricing; chain marketing; and volume dealing”. This first supermarket took shape in an abandoned garage, a few blocks from a busy shopping area.
It was an instant success, drawing crowds by virtue of its discount pricing. Cullen’s first supermarket was followed by seven more within the first two years and by 1936 there were 17 King Kullen supermarkets. The company was still trading in 2017 with 32 locations in New York state.
At least one of Cullen’s employers soon realised how mistaken he’d been in rejecting his employee’s vision. William Albers, the former president of Kroger Grocery & Bakery Co. opened a similar store in Cincinatti in 1933 and was the first to coin the term ‘supermarket’ to describe his operation.
These early supermarkets set the model which was to be followed by Australian stores in the 1960s.