- Cornering the Market: Independent Grocers and Innovation in American Small Business by Susan Spellman
Cornering the Market is about "corner" grocery stores, the small independent markets that began in the late-nineteenth-century United States and grew through the first few decades of the twentieth. It is also about the reasons why larger chain stores managed to surpass and largely strangle those smaller stores during the 1910s, 1920s, and especially the Depression decade of the 1930s. It is a very useful addition to the numerous books covering the grocery industry, especially since it starts far earlier than recent works on the same industry by other scholars.
Spellman's thesis is that the structure and activities of independent grocery store owners exemplify the process of industrialization just as much as the large manufacturers that followed them. Even though steelmaking and automobile manufacturing have sucked up much of the historical attention, she argues that the modernization efforts and coordination activities of these much smaller businessmen are as much a part of the story of American industrialization as anything that Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller accomplished. Indeed, because food was much more important to the daily lives of everyday Americans than steel or oil were during this period, the history of grocery stores can tell us more about their experiences than those of larger companies can.
As this description should suggest, this book is primarily a work of business history. However, technology of all kinds played an important part in facilitating the increased efficiency and growth of independent grocers. Spellman points to technologies (in the broad sense of that word) like specialty display cases, new ledgers, and even telephones as important tools for independent grocers in their quest for growth and modernization. Background technological changes such as improvements in transportation and electricity play a part in her story as well. The same is true for technological changes in the production of the food products that grocers sold. The development of Fleischmann's Yeast, for example, aided independent grocers in their quest for efficiency, because dealing with branded products helped them systematize the acquisition of inventory. [End Page 972]
The best chapter in the book is the one which covers another one of these technological innovations in much greater detail. Cash registers, argues Spellman, were an essential element of grocery modernization because they greatly increased how well proprietors understood the daily operation of their businesses. The information registers provided increased efficiency and deskilled clerks and encouraged a business culture that rewarded innovation. In the course of describing these effects, Spellman links the features on the models that National Cash Register manufactured to the needs of independent grocers, since that company solicited them directly for feedback. Grocers wanted clocks on registers, for example, so that they would know when the most sales occurred and could have the necessary amount of labor in their stores at that time to meet demand.
The book closes with the effect of the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 on the growth of chain stores, which she argues promoted a culture of efficiency that did not match this industry's original ethos. It then jumps to the impact of Walmart on today's grocery industry, suggesting that these giant stores are really local grocers that have market power not so much due to price fixing, but because of technological advantages, such as a ruthless and shrewd employment of information technology.
The greatest contribution this book makes involves the details of the grocery business between the 1870s and 1890s, which never would have survived if it weren't for the many technologies that Spellman mentions. While this book would probably be of primary interest to business historians, its broad scope and the careful research that Spellman has conducted on the relationship between technology and the growth of independent groceries make it a worthwhile acquisition for historians of technology who have any interest in how food was either manufactured or distributed.
Jonathan Rees is professor of history at Colorado State University...