FOOD: Transforming the American Table

Barcode Revolution

The slim margins in food retailing have long inspired grocers to cut costs. In the 1970s, seeking a way to speed checkout and limit mistakes, grocers led a coalition of manufacturers and retailers to develop a system of standardized product identification—the Universal Product Codes, or bar codes. The system enabled stores to track inventory and record customer buying habits. It also made possible the discount warehouse, a highly efficient model for distributing food and other goods to consumers at reduced prices.

Supermarket scanner, 1970s

Supermarket scanner, 1970s

Courtesy of Publix Supermarkets, Inc.

While bar code scanners brought efficiency to supermarket checkout lanes, some shoppers balked at not having prices marked on individual items.

Supermarket Chefs

Supermarket Chefs

Courtesy of Wegmans

Wegmans began offering chef-prepared meals in its Corning, New York, store in 1992. This trend has continued to grow. Most supermarkets offer an array of fresh, prepared foods for on-the-go consumers and even provide on-site dining areas, blurring the line between grocery store and restaurant.

Membership card, 1991

Membership card, 1991

Gift of Margaret (Peggy) Hackman and Family

In 1983, Costco took the no-frills warehouse idea originated by Price Club in 1976 a step further by allowing anyone, not just business owners, to become a member. One devoted shopper used this membership card for twenty years.

Stocking up at Costco, 2008

Stocking up at Costco, 2008

Courtesy of AP Images

The products sold at warehouse stores reflect the workings of global, industrialized food distribution. Relying on economies of scale, from production and manufacturing to containerized shipping and efficient transport by rail and road, the system can supply consumers with large quantities of goods at low prices.

Warehouse shopping cart, 2011

Gift of Costco Wholesale, Inc.

View object record