An instructive look at the rise and fall of a retail giant

By Bob Kustra and the Reader’s Corner team

‘The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America’ by Marc Levinson; Hill and Wang ($16)
‘The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America’ by Marc Levinson; Hill and Wang ($16)

Grocery shopping is on almost everyone’s weekly “to do” list. For many households, that means driving to the supermarket or an even larger discount mega-store, and loading our carts to the brim with our favorite brands.

But grocery shopping wasn’t always this way. A century ago, small mom-and-pop grocers dotted street corners, staffed by storekeepers who knew their customers by name. Today, the retail landscape continues to change, as more of us go online for a variety of purchases.

In his book, “The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America,” Marc Levinson offers an insightful look at the history of the grocery business by chronicling the rise and fall of what was once the world’s largest retailer.

Levinson dives deep into the history of The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, a chain that once included nearly 16,000 stores in the United States and Canada. But A&P’s massive size and scale threatened small independent grocers, and decades of litigation and government investigation followed. At one point, the government even pressed criminal charges, alleging the company had engaged in illegal constraint of trade by using its size and market power to keep food prices artificially low. In a remarkable decision, the government won the case.

Levinson is a former finance and economics editor of The Economist in London, a former business reporter for Time and Newsweek and the author of a number of other books, including “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.”

What makes “The Great A&P” particularly relevant is the insight it offers on the challenges facing retailers large and small today. For example, Levinson writes that there are “striking parallels between the objections to A&P in the first half of the 20th century and those raised against Walmart in the 21st.” In the end, the A&P declined because it did not adapt quickly enough to a fast-changing market. Levinson’s narrative offers food for thought for anyone interested in understanding how and why markets continue to change.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Levinson, are online and available for podcast at Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook; search for “Reader’s Corner.”