Don’t Forget Your Shopping List: What the history of the supermarket can teach ECs about service

Shutterstock / Olesia_G
Shutterstock / Olesia_G
Published On
Sep 15, 2022

If you are planning to attend the NECA Convention and Trade Show in Austin, here’s a self-assessment tool to measure your preparedness and make the most of the experience.

Think about the brand name of any supermarket you have visited in the last 12 months with a shopping list. Did you go to Costco? Whole Foods?

This exercise had nothing to do with chain stores, brand names, market share, retailing trends, shopping habits, COVID precautions, nutritional factors, home deliveries or whatever else that you might have expected.

It was a trick question.

The real issue is if you used an old-fashioned shopping list. A digital memo or shared list would also be acceptable, especially if you called home for any on-the-spot clarifications or approved substitutions.

This leads right into our contention that the NECA Show cannot be properly explored without a “shopping list.” Nowhere else can contractors discover in one place the universe of electrical opportunities in products, tools and equipment.

Talk about a trip to the supermarket!

Some history

In keeping with the theme, here is a little history of the first supermarket, which happens to contain three valuable takeaways for every service-minded electrical contractor.

Surprisingly, in the 1920s, big grocery stores had many features that we are accustomed to seeing today. They allowed customers to browse store aisles and pick up products. Before, clerks would gather the items from the shelves. Grocery store “chains” had already emerged, complete with their own store-brand products. Cincinnati-based Kroger, dating back to 1883, was by far the largest of them.

But still, they were all just “grocery stores.”

In 1929, Michael J. Cullen, a branch manager at a Kroger store in Illinois, wrote a letter to the company’s president. In it, he proposed that Kroger pursue an entirely new concept featuring much larger stores, wider product selections and a novel pricing scheme that would include a combination of items sold at cost, items sold slightly above cost and items sold at healthy margins. Those were only some of Cullen’s revolutionary ideas, but he never received a response.

So, in 1930, he packed up, moved to Long Island, found a business partner, and launched King Kullen, the first supermarket in the United States. King Kullen was soon advertising itself as the world’s greatest “price wrecker,” stocking 10 times as many items as a standard grocery store. By 1936, it was operating a 17-store chain (including a location acquired from one Fred Trump, who used the proceeds of the sale to invest in real estate). Michael J. Cullen died after appendix surgery that year. The King Kullen chain continues today, but in a twist of fate, Kroger is now the largest supermarket chain.

There are three great lessons service-minded electrical contractors can learn from this slice of history.

Takeaway 1: Although no actual “cash-and-carry” transactions occur at the NECA Show, its overwhelming scope echoes the attributes that once catapulted supermarkets into prominence. Service-minded electrical contractors in particular should enter it with a “shopping list,” anticipate their time on the exhibit floor and reserve time for chance discoveries.

More than a few contractors proudly insist that they have returned home with at least one new idea that “paid for the trip.” And because service and maintenance primarily involves dealing directly with end-users, the hint of having the latest knowledge of everything electrical is especially important.

Takeaway 2: The old-fashioned business model for ECs is destined to go the way of the corner grocery store.

Electrical contractors must contemplate a future where customers increasingly demand one-stop shopping. Translated into contracting lingo, that means service-oriented ECs must develop in-house capabilities to deal with all electrical systems.

As we step across the threshold of the “electrification of everything,” it will be increasingly imperative that electrical contractors enlarge their capabilities, not limit their responsibilities.

Takeaway 3: In his letter, Cullen wrote, “Before you throw this letter in the wastebasket, read it again and then wire me, so I can tell you more about my plan and what it will do for you and your company.”

How many service electricians and technicians spending most of their workdays on the frontlines have invaluable insights that usually go unheard by the management?

What if two-way communications between the office and the field were so robust that they added items to the shopping lists of whoever was visiting the industry’s premier exposition?

About the Author

Andrew P. McCoy and Fred Sargent

SARGENT is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com. MCCOY is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and department head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson...

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