Canada: Grocery Store: The Untold Story

Last Updated: May 8 2018
Article by Ronald L. Doering

Most Read Contributor in Canada, October 2018

A family's biggest expense, after housing and transportation, is groceries, at about 10 per cent of income. Canadians spend about $100 billion annually at roughly 3,000 grocery stores. Almost no one, no family, fails to go to a grocery store each week. Yet most people know almost nothing about how these stores operate or where the food they sell comes from. And, remarkably, almost nothing has been written about them.

Enter Michael Rulhman to fill this gap in the United States. In his latest book Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America (Abrams Press, 2017), Rulhman takes the reader along a fascinating journey from the front door of your local store through the centre aisles (what he calls a food desert) and around the perimeter, stopping at each of the nine departments in a typical supermarket.

Ruhlman's book is particularly good in the early chapters on the colourful history of grocery stores. He describes how, at the beginning of the 20th century, the local general store sold about 200 products but by the end of the century the typical supermarket had over 40,000 individual items or SKUs (stock keeping units), each with its own unique bar code.

Ruhlman is an excellent story teller. For example, he tells the story of George Gilman who started selling tea in the 1860s, grandly calling his company The Great American Tea Company and later, with the advent of transcontinental railways, re-naming it Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Taking over the company in 1871, young George Hartford saw the opportunity created by the great Chicago fire and opened the first A&P store there, expanding into other food products. By the 1880s there were 150 stores, and by the 1920s it owned 16,000 grocery stores, 70 factories and more than 100 warehouses, opening seven stores a day in America. Not only was A&P the biggest food retailer in the world, it was the world's biggest retailer of any kind. A&P pioneered a familiar strategy: taking advantage of their enormous purchasing power and centralized warehouse systems, they battled unions, pressed suppliers to lower prices, created private brands (A&P Baking Soda was the first "private brand"), cut out the middleman and created volume. Following the death of George Hartford, the company made a series of strategic blunders and failed to respond to the changing nature of the industry. A&P declared bankruptcy and closed its last store in 2015, making it a cautionary tale for today's supermarket chains.

The Walmart story is equally fascinating. While the company didn't start to sell food until 1988, it's now the world's biggest grocer, its grocery revenue alone bigger than the gross sales of General Motors and AT&T.

Ruhlman also provides interesting insights on the factors that led to the growth of the self-service supermarket. These days we think of innovation as something high tech. The three revolutionary inventions that enabled the development of supermarkets were the tin can, the accidental discovery of the cardboard box (a paper bag machine jammed) and in 1937 the invention by Sylvan Goldman of the lowly grocery shopping cart (Goldman patented an improvement in 1947 - the shopping cart with the fold down child seat).

Unfortunately Ruhlman, the excellent story teller, is not so good at serious journalism. His treatment of current public policy issues is wholly lacking in balance, analysis or scholarly rigour. Relying continuously on such well known critics of the food industry as Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, he never misses an opportunity to rant against Big Food, breakfast cereals, food that isn't organic, processed food, and get the picture. His evidence is mostly anecdotal, failing to recognize that the plural of anecdote isn't data. His snarky style is often over the top and leads to such outrageously wrong statements as "Canola stands for Canadian oil association - that's not food."

Grocery is a missed opportunity. There is so much more to tell, so many more secrets to be revealed about your local supermarket. The real story of A&P to Amazon is still yet to be told.

Originally published in Food in Canada.

Read the original article on

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions