Many forms of retailing have experienced transformations aimed at increaising efficiency, especially increasing the size of stores and reducing customer service. As I thought about this, I realized that these changes happened at very different times for differnet types of retailing. I decided it would be interesting to look at the differences in timing.
For general merchandise, the department store came as the very early innovation in the mid–19th century, with large stores offering very broad ranges of goods. But it took a century before the self-service discount department store emerged with very limited assistance within the store and customers paying up front. I looked up some dates and found an amazing coincidence: Walmart, Kmart, and Target were all founded in 1962.
For groceries, the order of innovation was reversed. Piggly Wiggly was established as the first self-service grocery in 1916. But like other grocers at the time, it did not carry items such as meat and produce. The first “true” supermarket, King Kullen, did not arrive until 1930. (This was established by research conducted by the Food Marketing Institute and the Smithsonian!)
Looking at more specialized forms of retailing, Toys “R” Us was early, having been founded in 1957. Home Depot opened its first two home improvement superstores in 1979. Lowes, their largest competitor, was founded decades earlier but did not adopt the big-box format until forced to by the competition from Home Deport.
The coincidences of several large-format retailers being founded at about the same time was not limited to discount department stores. Office Depot and Staples were both established in 1984, with Office Max coming only two years later. Best Buy was originally formed as a specialty audio retailer. It changed to its current name, expanded into other types of consumer electronics, and opened its first superstore in 1983. Circuit City followed a similar evolution, changing its name and expanding to become a general consumer electronics retailer a year later. PetSmart was founded in 1985. Petco started much earlier as a mail-order business. I could not find when they first opened physical stores.
I find it fascinating that the big box stores in so many categories started around the same time in the 1980s. Why then? The efficiency of large self-service stores had been established far earlier with supermarkets and discount department stores. Toys “R” us started as a specialized “category killer” retailer over two decades earlier, and the example of Home Depot had been around for a number of years. And suddenly retailers in very different categories moved in that direction at about the same time.