A Lateral Idea in Retail - Turn the Shop Around

A Lateral Idea in Retail - Turn the Shop Around

Paul Sloane 26/02/2019 4

Consider the shopping experience for a housewife in the 1920s. She would go from one small store to another – meat from the butcher’s, bread from the bakery, fish from the fish monger, cans and vegetables from the grocer’s, household items from the hardware store and so on. At each shop she would have to queue behind other customers as the shopkeeper fetched each item the customer wanted from the shelves behind the counter. It was a long and costly experience.

A man called Michael Cullen asked a simple question, ‘What would happen if we turned the shop around and let people collect all the items they wanted themselves?’ Many retail experts would have thought this a crazy idea – ‘surely customers want service rather than wandering around the store searching for things.’ But Cullen was undeterred. He went on to create the world’s first supermarket, the King Kullen store in Queens, New York.

Cullen was born in 1884 as the child of Irish immigrants. He worked in retail stores for many years and developed a plan for a better customer experience with greater efficiencies.  He wrote a letter to the president of the firm he worked for, Kroger Stores. In it he suggested a new concept – a large self-service shop with a big selection of all the items that people commonly wanted at much lower prices. He forecast that this type of store would dramatically increase Kroger’s sales and profits. 

Cullen's letter was ignored so he left his job and launched his own store, King Kullen in 1930. The store carried what was for the time a vast range - over 1,000 items, everything from paint to groceries. Prices were low and there was ample parking. Word spread quickly and people came from miles around. 

The King Kullen chain grew rapidly. Cullen rented space in old factories and warehouses which had closed in the Great Depression.  Customers loved the wide choice and low prices. By 1936 there were 17 King Kullen supermarkets and turnover had reached $6m. But in that year, at age 52, Michael Cullen died suddenly after an operation on his appendix.  His lateral approach to selling groceries was copied around the world and the supermarket has become ubiquitous. He had turned the shop around.


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  • Alan Dunwell

    I like this vintage post.

  • Jack Brandon

    It was a really cool time to grow up.

  • Tina Kieffer

    The old corner stores and record store and people were actually social and not a holes.

  • Andrew Sparshatt

    Most people don't care about name brands, they want cheap prices and easy access.

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Paul Sloane

Innovation Expert

Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.

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