A&P Has a Fruitcake Strategy

Regalo Brand at A&PMONTVALE, N.J. – There is but one grocery chain that inspires literature. It’s the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (NYSE: GAP), this year celebrating its 150th anniversary.

In John Updike’s Kennedy-era short story “A&P” a 19-year-old clerk identifies with three scantily clad girls who come into an A&P in a small town in Massachusetts, and offend the manager. A great line:

“I forgot to say he thinks he’s going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something..”

Today, while the chain is still called A&P, it is thankfully run by Germans, not Soviets, and has 444 stores in the Northeast under brands like Waldbaums, A&P, Pathmark, Food Emporium and Super Fresh. At the time Updike wrote the story, A&P dominated the national grocery market. The colonial cupolas on its 4,300 supermarkets were as ubiquitous as Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), in every city large and small.

But in the 1970s, A&P fell apart. Not only did the chain not invest in new stores, they ditched a logo as classic as Coke’s. Instead of stylish graphics, they brought in cheap “Pride and Price” mascots and garish WE-O (we owe you more) promotions. The stores were allowed to run down.

There was hope for change in 1979, when the founding Hartford family’s interests were taken over by The Tengelmann Group (Tengelmann Warenhandelsgesellschaft KG) of Germany. Since then, it has been a roller coaster of a stock ride. The price, around $5 a share in 1980, went up as high as $62 in 1989 but is back at just under $4.

Why the ups and downs? While one could write many business case studies on it, I believe that one main reason they have suffered is that they have been obsessed with other grocery chain brands while mostly ignoring what was great, namely the classic A&P concept.

Instead of really nurturing its own unique set of in-store product brands, it is now a holding company that is a conglomeration of grocery store branded formats including A&P, Super Fresh, Food Emporium, Waldbaums and Pathmark. While many of these are good brands, it is an insane strategy for a company with a brand as interesting and storied as A&P.

A&P owns Super Fresh, a grocery store format that my fellow college students in Richmond, Virginia nicknamed “Super Scary” because of its bad location, substance-abusing customers and run-down condition. A&P sort of renovated the store interior (a former Pantry Pride) but they never insisted that the potholed parking lot be filled in, and the store closed. In the 1990s, I watched as many of those cretinous Super Scaries became Farmer Jack, a format with odd cutout figures of hick farmers hung above the different sections. It was a really dumb version of Stew Leonard’s.

At the same time they added the different formats, they ditched A&P’s private labels in favor of brands like America’s Choice, Master Choice and Health Pride. Big mistake, as the A&P brand was built on an astonishing array of private brands, all crafted with care and thought. (The Eight O’Clock brand, now an independent company, sold for over $100 million just a few years ago.) The brands included Ann Page, Red Circle Coffee, Sail cleaners and detergents, Sultana, Cap’n John’s seafood items, Sparkle gelatin, Cheeri-Aid, White House evaporated milk, Our Own, Nectar tea, Ahoy liquid dishwashing detergent, Yukon Club beverages, Iona canned vegetables, Worthmore candies, Crestview small/medium eggs, Wildmere large eggs, Sunnybrook (extra large eggs and butter), Sunnyfield (pancake mix, flour), Penguin ice cream, Marvel bread and ice cream, Allgood bacon, Dexola shortening, Nutley margarine and Super Right meats.

While each of these brands were not worth $100 million, they were worth something, and they were all thrown out like week-old fish. But the store brands weren’t the only thing right about the A&P brand. What was good?

  • A&Ps always had a limited number of SKUs,  which meant it was an easy store for customers to negotiate.
  • The stores were almost all the same, allowing for efficiencies in store plan.
  • Prices were important, but the approach was of a quality of Trader Joe. For instance, the coffee grinders at the end of the checkout were a symbol of A&P’s roots in coffee and tea, which A&P dominated.
  • A&P focused on presentation. The Regalo logo seen above was not just a logo, it was a complete branded produce program of A&P, where fruits and vegetables were meticulously sorted and stacked in gorgeous pyramids.

There are good signs at the company. The first good sign is that they have invested in a new A&P store model; while I haven’t seen it, the photos of their Holmdel, N.J. store look promising, though I have to argue with their promoting Starbucks inside of an A&P (it ought to be centered around the Eight O’Clock brand, not Starbucks). A&P has tried every trick to turn itself around in the last 30 years; it’s about time they are now investing in their 150-year-old A&P brand story in order to make themselves relevant in 2009.

This year is the 150th anniversary of A&P. Thankfully, they are also reintroducing products with A&P stories, leveraging that brand legacy, and receiving favorable press on trend-setting foodie websites like Roadfood.com and Epicurious.They offer a Hartford Reserve pie brand. And for Christmas, they re-introduced Jane Parker Fruitcake, reviving a yearly holiday tradition.

Now, we know that fruitcake is no strategy for a grocery chain. But it’s the right start.

21 Comments


  1. As a business coach and mentor, I’ve read many business case histories, but this one has a personal connection. I remember the smell of fresh ground coffee at every checkout line. A&P was just decades ahead of the coffee boom.

    I was looking for an image of the classic old A&P logo and found this whole story about what has happened to the chain. Could management have made a worse set of decisions? Thank goodness the Eight O’Clock Coffee brand escaped to live on.

  2. Where can I purchase a Jane Parker Fruitcake?

    Norma Barkley
    118 Barkley Lane
    Jeannette, PA 15644

  3. Where could I purchase the old brand “A&P cream ale?”

  4. I have 2 11×14 paintings that came from A&P grocery back in the early 60’s. THe girl is holding a bowl of cherries and the boy is holding a piece of pottery. Have you every seen any or would you know a value of them.
    Jean

  5. How can we order either Ann Page or Sultana salad dressing through the mail?

  6. Where can I find an A&P store that has The old Jane Parker Fruit cakes/. I miss them at holidays:

    Louis Morse

  7. the old jane parker fruit cakes, i do miss .is there any way to order the fruit cake? Please let me know. I also like the spice cake.

  8. Lived in Pearl River N.Y. many years.Shoped in Monvale N.J. A& PTO also buy Ann Page dark fruit cake at Christmas time ,loaf size.Can I order by mail or whatever? Ireside in Meredith N,H . 6032794993 or E Mail as shown above .Thank You.

  9. You can order the Jane Parker fruitcakes at amazon.com. I’m going on a hunch that this is the fruitcake I loved as a child and buying one for myself and another as a possible gift.

  10. I am trying to find where I can purchase a Jane
    Parker fruitcake. These were sold in late 50’s
    at the A & P grocery stores in Maryland but I cannot seem to find a web site or store that I can purchase one from Please advise

  11. do they still make ann page salad dressing under a different brand name?

  12. Is there still a Anne Page Mayonnaise ??? And if not is it made under a different name ??? And where can I purchase this ??? Is the Product Anne Page discontinued ??? Thank You !!!

  13. is ann page salad dressing still available , possibly on line?

  14. Does A & P still make ann page salad dressing -if so where can it be purchased?

  15. I have asked before – if A & P still makes Ann Page Salad Dressing, but have never received an answer. Please let me know if they still make the Salad Dressing, and where it can be purchased.

  16. Where can I buy A&P salad dressing or order thru the mail?

  17. Back in the day, in metro Detroit, that “hick” Farmer Jack meant quality and great pricing for shoppers. It was one of our local supermarket chains that along with Wrigley, Great Scott! and Chatham, are just memories.

    Before A&P bought and ruined the company in the late 1980s, it was owned and operated by the Borman family. My uncle worked his way up from stockboy to produce manager and did well enough to even buy a hobby farm and horses.

    1. so sad I had no idea there was a connection in Detroit. What a muddled mess A&P created by buying all of these other chains and not focusing on their own great brand!

  18. Please let me know where Ann Page Mayonaise can be purchased or give us the recipe.
    I refuse to eat any other mayonaise!

    1. Would love to hear that someone would make the old A&P brand
      Allgood bacon,Ann Page mayonnaise and Ann Page Fruitcake,
      they were very tasty products as were many things they carried
      that you can’t find today.
      Evelyn G.

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