New Book on Rise and Fall of A&P has Lessons for Today’s Grocery Store Wars

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By P. Michael Saint, Chairman and CEO, The Saint Consulting Group

In 1930 the largest retailer in the world was A&P with sales of over $1 billion a year, more than double the size of the next largest retailer – Sears.

In 1951, the largest retailer with sales of over $3.3 billion was still A&P and second place was still Sears with $2.7 billion in annual sales.

By 1979 the A&P was in free fall and was bought by the German company, Tenglemann, which tried desperately to revive it, but ultimately failed.

By 2010, stripped down to a small shadow of its former self, the company was showing high losses on annual sales of $8.8 billion and declared bankruptcy.

The rise and fall of A&P is chronicled in a new book by Marc Levinson: “The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America.” It is a story of the Hartford family which built A&P from a small group of coffee and tea stores in New York and New Jersey into the Wal-mart of its day with thousands of stores, cheap prices, low costs, huge buying power, much innovation and some vertical integration.

Like Wal-mart, the front running A&P was also the target of competitors, unions, small businesses and progressive politicians who attempted to tax and regulate it into submission and when that failed, brought anti trust law suits against it, ultimately getting an Illinois federal judge to find it guilty.

Levinson’s book is a fabulous retelling of the A&P story and is filled with lessons applicable to today’s grocery store wars. While many may think that supermarkets using law, regulation, politicians and lawsuits to combat competitors is  a recent  phenomenon, a close reading will show that such tactics have been used for more than a century in the US.

Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email

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