Vintage Business #6: Top 10 Changes in Grocery Shopping

This is for you youngsters out there - just so you know, here are some differences between grocery shopping today and from around thirty years ago.  Things have changed quite a bit at the old Publix and Kroger. Let's take a look at few glaring changes (for better or worse).

1. They were rarely open on Sunday. Believe it or not, Sunday is now the supermarket's biggest shopping day of the week!

2. The bag boys used to help you get your bags to your car.  This still happens on occasion today, but don't rely on it.... in fact, I often end up even bagging my own groceries.

3. You would rarely if ever catch a male customer in a grocery store.

4.  By comparison, grocery stores were pretty small - even in the larger cities.  You didn't have to walk twenty miles to buy toilet paper.

5. Green stamps were common.  If you don't know what green stamps are, just move on to the next item - it's a long story.

6. People smoked in grocery stores. There were ashtrays in the produce section.

7. You felt like a valued customer, not cattle. The butcher actually knew your mom (hopefully, not in the Biblical sense).

8. The carts were SMALL!

9. There was the old familiar "ka-ching" of the cash register. No barcodes - things were typed in by hand, and people paid with cash.
10. There was no "paper or plastic?" question at the checkout. You got paper.

Leave a comment if you remember another glaring difference. I'd like to hear your recollections.


  1. All great stuff, man. I also remember our local supermarket had a conveyor belt of sorts that was along the front wall of the store. After your groceries were bagged, they could put them on the belt and give them a push. All the rolling pin type things kept it moving right out through an opening and around to where you could pull your car or wagon right to the front of the store and load the groceries right from there as they came out on the 'belt'.

  2. Cigarettes weren't kept under lock and key, with only a store manager having access. They were just out there on a display next to the trashy magazines and candy bars.

  3. These were in the days before microwaveable food and Swanson type dinners were just about the only convenience ready to eat meal out there.

    As a kid in the 70's I remember no milk bags until the 80's.

  4. Great post.
    A couple of items left out -

    the food probably wasn't grown by some huge company & genetically modified. NO bovine growth hormones in your milk in the 60's (i think! But watch out for the flouridated water).

    Also, we had a lot of neighborhood groceries and bakeries when I was a kid. There were two bakeries in walking distance of my house and one was owned by the family of someone I went to school with. There was a grocery store probably three blocks away and it wasn't part of a huge chain.

    Oh, and candy store. Our town had a couple, one sold nothing but the kind of candy you find in the checkout of a grocery store now and popcorn. It was called Caramel Crisp and was right on our Main St. for years and years.

  5. I'm not that old, but in my small home town, there were some old Grocery Stores. When I was young, I remember Turnstyles as you walked in. I suppose to count the number of incoming customers versus the number of sales? Also, there was a big bin up front in which you could return your 2 quart glass soda bottles for 'credit', since these bottles were washed and reused by the Bottling plant.
    Finally, you can see in the film the Deerhunter, (There is a scene in which a conversation takes place in a back room of a store) there were purple ink hand stamp units that clerks would use to price the canned goods.

  6. I lived in Virginia when the "Maryland Blue Laws" started to crumble away. These were the laws closing everything on Sunday.

    Safeway could open on Sunday, but could only sell food. All of the cleaning supplies, shoe strings, toothpaste, were off limits, their isles were closed with a yellow ribbon across them.

    Then I came to California and some Supermarkets were open 24 hours. But you could only buy meat when the butcher was on duty. This includes packaged meat as well. You could not buy packaged hotdogs or any Oscar Meyer products at 2am.

  7. omg this is great. i love these photos!

  8. oh, those were some great pics. I remember my mom pasting in about a zillion "S&H Greenstamps" and us going to downtown Charleston to cash 'em in (in SC, there was a now-defunt grocer called Doschers, and they had plastic "Save-A-Chips" that did much the same thing, but were only redeemable in the store, and were, given their size, more trouble than they were worth!)

  9. Another change is that there are very few stores that just sell groceries. Our local "supermarket" has inside its walls a bank, a separate liquor store with a huge man-cave walk in beer cooler, a complete deli with seating, a coffee shop, a floral shop, etc. They also sell everything from dog kennels to clothing. And this is not a Super Target or Wal-Mart. These are all just things this grocery has added over the years to compete. Or think they need to compete. I will add they closed their video department and added Redbox. Did I mention they have food?

  10. grocery store parking lots did not require security guards...

  11. - Brach's candy was sold in bins you sorted through by hand

    - There was always a mechanical rocking horse outside the front door

    - The freezers were usually open topped and did not have doors

    - The baking sections were much bigger back then - people baked a lot more then - conversely there were many fewer pre-packaged meals. TV dinners and hamburger helper were about it.

    - Milk came in glass or waxed cardboard - not plastic

  12. No only did they bag the groceries and carry them to your car. But they EMPTIED your cart for you as well. You would walk up and they did all the rest.

    Ahhhhh. Those were the days.

  13. People smoked in grocery stores. There were ashtrays in the produce section.

    Was it as recently as that? I remember seeing Fred MacMurray doing it in Double Indemnity and thinking how much wiser we were today.

  14. Generic meant everything came with a black and white label. The can or bag would be white and the lettering black. That way everybody would know you couldn't afford the 'good' stuff. I mentioned that to my mom not to long before she passed away and she said she couldn't believe I still remembered that.


  15. KING OF JAZZMarch 12, 2010

    I recall, circa 1962, the produce manager would use a scale to weigh a purchase, put it in a paper bag and mark it with a pencil or charcoal.

    I recall samples of "Wink" soda being given out around 1965 (it was from Canada Dry).

    Yes, supermarkets were much smaller in scale, and the ka-ching of those registers (plus the tappity-tap of the large buttons)
    are indelible memories).

  16. People in line today are no longer resentful of the one person who has to pay by check!

    Everything would grind to a halt and you'd want to throttle the check-writer ("see this? Green paper? Use it!")

    I don't miss physical food stamps, either, nor the "welfare queen" stories by people who seem to hang at the grocery store checkouts more than the checkers do!

  17. Ooh, this has to be my favorite Retrospace piece yet! (Loved the comment about generic products all being in black & white packaging--I forgot all about that!)

    Before my dad bought a farm in 1971& we still lived in town, we lived 3 blocks from 'Howard's Market'--I was only 8 years old, my mom would send me to Howards at least twice a week with a short shopping list. (Who sends their 8 year old kids to go shopping now? These are different times...)

    What I remember best was:
    1) going to the meat counter for lunchmeat & Mike always wrapping it in heavy orange paper & string.

    2) You never saw white papertowels! They were bright blue, green, yellow--never white!

    3) At the checkout counter, I'd tell the cashier "Oh I need 5 packs of cigarettes--3 Winstons (my dad) and 2 Silva Thins (for my mom)." The cashier never batted an eye, rang them up and into the bag.

  18. When the bar code reader doesn't work right I sometimes say to the cashier, "Remember the old days when you had to read the price off the item and then actually punch keys on the register?" And the cashier looks at me like I'm a demented old man because of course she (and it is still usually a she) doesn't remember that.

  19. SignOfZetaMarch 13, 2010

    There wasn't a parking lot sized collection of electric chairs for the grotesquely fat.

    Milk came in glass bottles with a deposit on it.

    Kids could buy cigarettes if they had a note saying they were for a parent.

  20. KING OF JAZZMarch 13, 2010

    A few other thoughts...I also recall, from the '60s, glass soda bottles (never mind cans or anything plastic) stacked in wooden crates. On shelves I recall LARGE glass Cocoa-Cola bottles.

    I don't recall a surfeit of magazines/tabloids at the checkout, as is long common now.

    Gumball machines (the type with a globe top) were pretty typical.

  21. I remember going to the grocery store with my dad 30 years ago & him bringing back a 6-pack of empty quart pop bottle to get the deposit. Like someone else mentioned, most of the grocery stores now have a bank, florist, cappuccino stand, etc....

  22. My sister's first job was at the Safeway and when she was promoted to clerk she had to train to learn how to punch in the prices using the old fashioned cash registers. She got really good at it. She could ring up a price without looking.

  23. I like 70's shows and movies that show the inside of stores. I always pause Disney's Gus during the grocery store chase just to see what's on the shelves.

  24. Looking in the other direction, the grocery store of tomorrow (actually today) isn't even a store. Our family saves over 40% on groceries we buy through an online store. A $29.95 subscription per month saves us thousands a year and they deliver for free!. WE posted our savings and price comparison at www.harvestgroceryonline.com.

  25. Great article! I was just talking to my sister about our old grocery store in town. My memory always focuses on the music that was played over the loudspeaker. It was a lounge type music which you could almost stroll along to while going through the aisles.

  26. The Bakery department actually baked their own products and as a kid you could ask for a free cookie and they'd give you the ones that looked funny or had broken.

    My very first vinyl record was purchased with S&H Greenstamps. Marie Osmond - Paper Roses.

    The Butcher was the kind of guy you actually spoke to about what you were planning for dinner and what your budget was. He would then suggest a few items and cut it by request.

    Writing a check in line was fine but if you were going to CONTINUE STANDING THERE while you BALANCED YOUR CHECKBOOK (because there were no carbon copies for checks then)... you might actually get gang-raped by a bunch of angry housewives.

  27. Someone mentioned the Brach's display. I also remember the candy was sold on the "honor system".

  28. You could get your order rung up faster by sorting your goods by department as you unloaded your cart--produce, meat, paper products, grocery, dairy, etc. The checker didn't have to keep shifting the "dept" lever on the cash register that way.

    I guess nobody "rings up" stuff anymore. I was at a bar a few weeks ago that still had an old style cash register. One neighborhood grocery store had a cash register with a crank on the side. Another one just had a till. The grocer added things up. Sometimes it was necessary to use a pencil for calculations and these would be written on a paper bag or on butcher paper.

  29. The produce bins were divided with ornamental parsley to separate the different goods. If you needed parsley, you grabbed a bunch. It was free with your order.

    Produce was not regularly showered with mist from overhead sprayers. I hate those things.

  30. I clearly recall sand filled knee high ashtrays at the grocery store door next to a FREE phone on the wall for customers to dial (yes, I said D-I-A-L) a taxi if need be (or any other local number which, btw, was only four numbers long) Cigarette butts were scattered here and there in the aisles and every hour or so a nice guy would walk through with a large dust mop to get them out of the way. I also remember running to this same grocery store many times with a note from mom to pick up a pack of Ralaigh Filter Kings, the order was filled no questions asked. I recall spinning racks of comic books placed conveniently near the check stands. The butcher wore a cool paper hat and knew all the ladies by name...so did the baker. I'm not sure about the candlestick maker though. (had to say it)

  31. One more thing...my mother was (and still is after 40 plus years) the head book keeper at the grocery in the small town I grew up in. I used to hang around the store as a kid in the early days of my life. (born 66). I remember a Plastic Man comic book, or a comic book that just happened to have a plastic man story in it at the time, that scared the living hell out of me. The images of Plastic Man stretching just horrified me for some reason. I used to stash that comic in the Butcher shop somewhere under a counter top and whenever my little kid brain needed a good dose of fear and adrenaline, I would go sneak the comic out and stare at those horrid stretchy images for a while!

  32. 30 years ago the shopping buggies (that is what we called them in the south) seemed to be the same general size that are still used today.
    I also recall the glass 2-liter (appx size as it was measured in ounces) large soda bottles - everything seemed to taste better coming out of cold glass, but you'd better not drop it or it would shatter!
    I also remember the deposit was around 15-20 cents (possibly more) as we would go around the new home construction sites in our neighborhood and collect the deposit bottles - it was our only real source of income - and turn them in at the local Zippy Mart (we would usually first amass the collection in a cabinet under the oven - imagine our amusement when a mouse crawled in an RC Cola bottle and died! We joked that we did not envy the next person to drink out of that bottle!
    There also seem to still be some uncovered floor freezers still around today - the most recent one I recall was from a Winn Dixie (which was constructed in '96).
    I also recall the old-school Swanson TV Dinners, in all their aluminum glory!
    They offered what seems to me larger portions of (certainly) better quality food than most frozen dinners you get today; baking them in an conventional oven (as opposed to nuking them) also gave the dinner a better texture; as a teenager I would generally bake two of them, but that was just around the time of the transition to the microwave-friendly plastic trays, of which at the time I lauded as microwaving is much less time-consuming, however I think it's clear that we've lost something with this advance.
    I also remember in the late 70's when there were at first only the wax paper milk cartons, and then all of a sudden we had the plastic one-gallon milk jugs.
    An image of a TV-tube tester also comes to mind.
    If I could go back in time to a late-70's supermarket, I would pick up two particular items: Irish Spring soap, and Heinz 57 steak sauce, as both changed their formulas in the mid-80's (and the change was not for the better; the Irish Spring used to be a bolder, manly soap that would get you very clean while still letting you smell like a man; the Heinz 57 sauce before 1985 was not the sweet-flavored sauce we have today, rather it was a bold, robust steak sauce that made an excellent contrast to A1 (which I also love and am glad has remained the same)).

  33. i remember a drinking fountain in the store, the signs were PAINTED in the meat section and on the store windows by hand, playing with the rollers the laundry basket type things the bags went in for the outdoor drive through pickup with its wooden plaques with numbers to match the baskety things so they knew which to load in your trunk while you sat in the car, picking out donuts with tongs in the glass case, lower ceilings, big hanging meat things in the deli like hams etc, terrazo floors, prizes in cereal that you picked for the prize not the food in the box. shreddies had the best but i didn't like them but the prize was the important thing.

  34. I came here because I was having zero luck Googling a picture of the plastic strips the grocery stores of old used to have covering the freezer sections. Is that familiar to anybody else??