My generation grew up with supermarkets. When you grow up with a concept, it is difficult to imagine that it has not always been around or that it might change in the future.
The first of these stores emerged in the US between 1910 and 1920. By the late 1950s, this revolutionary grocery model, based on self service, had successfully been migrated to Europe, Australian and New Zealand.
In essence, supermarkets de-personalised food retailing as the humans one comes across in a meaningful way within this store environment are the checkout operators. Customers typically have a choice which checkout to use - and by now, there are of course self-checkouts as well - and the operators are shift workers. Any other interaction is by choice;i.e., I might choose to ask a shelf filler to point me into the right direction if I cannnot find what I am looking for, etc.
Once a process has been de-personalised, it is relatively easy to apply economies of scale and grow a concept exponentially. This is exactly what happened in thecase of food retail.
The minute growth had reached critical mass, these retailers started to influence the food supply chain - long before we gave it that fancy name. Suddenly time honored distribution methods like wholesale produce markets were challenged by corporate retailers wishing to purchase their fruits and vegetables from producers, just to mention one example.
The core function of retailers is to provide consumers with their consumable needs, in quantities aligned to the consumers' ability to move the goods from the store to the home environment.
In plain English - I shop at supermarkets because I can get a 5kg bag of potatoes, for example. I can easily carry this bag across the car park to my vehicle and I have sufficient storage room for this bag in my pantry. When I have eaten the potatoes, I buy another bag. Maybe a smaller bag containing 2 kg, or a box with Jersy Benney potatoes with less than 1kg. Or, I might buy a 10kg bag if I feel this is warranted and the store actually stocks those. A generation ago, my mother would have rung the 'potato man' and had 100kg delivered for storage in our cellar. Next to the apples...
Convenience and certainty of supply are two key reasons which contributed to the developemt of the food retail sector as we know it today.
There might only be 90 odd years between the first Piggly Wiggly store and the retail behemoths of today, but their impact on the food supply landscape has been profound, with one of the underpinning enablers of their success having been technology.
Ironically, it is the advance of technology in general and of the Internet in particular, which is challenging the dominant position of today's supermarket concept.
One thing is for sure...our retail models are constantly evolving, so watch this space!