A look into Houston's retail past

Taking a trip to Grocery Stores of the Past (Part 1)

Editor’s note: In lieu of an April Fools prank this week’s post comes to us as a guest submission from commenter Anonymous in Houston. I’ll be back Sunday with the demo post -Mike!

Have fun thinking with Portals!

The Portal to Texas History website operated by the University of North Texas Libraries offers a tremendous database of primary historical resources including videos, newspapers, photographs, and more. While there is a lot at the Portal which might be relevant for those interested in retail history, I’ve found the videos at the Portal to be especially illuminating. Specifically, news clips from KXAS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Fort Worth, TX which covers the Metroplex, are a rich source of video clips which show retailers as they existed from the 1960s through the 2000s. The old KXAS newsreels have been carefully captured and are far higher quality than most historical video clips on sources like YouTube. One can see fine details in store décor from 40+ years ago in these video clips.

Although I have personal memories of visiting the majority of the retailers featured in the video clips below, I must admit that my memory cannot easily recall all the fine details about these retailers. Watching these video clips helped me bring back many memories of obscure parts of retail history like old aisle markers, store flooring patterns, and earthtone color designs. It’s really quite amazing. Since these are news clips, they also show reactions from store employees and customers as they were years ago. While some aspects of shopping and working at retailers years ago has not changed, many aspects will seem completely foreign to those who were not around to experience it in person. Even those who did experience these things might have forgotten about what life was like back decades ago. I feel that watching these video clips has helped transport me back to a time that has really become quite fuzzy to me over the passage of time. It’s really quite a powerful experience!

With that in mind, I’m going to share several video clips I’ve found to be interesting that I have come across while searching the Portal. Hopefully these video clips will either bring back a tremendous amount of memories or will inform you about how retail operated in a time before you were born. Most of the retailers which existed/exist in Dallas also existed/exist in Houston and their store designs and décor are quite similar in the two markets. Also, a proud Houstonian should not be ashamed of watching Metroplex retail videos. After all, Tom Thumb did get bought out by Randall’s and Sanger-Harris did become Foley’s! On to the video clips!

Albertsons

Although Albertsons did not stick around in the Houston market for very long, the topic of Albertsons in Houston has generated a tremendous amount of discussion on retail blogs and forums over the years.  With that in mind, this first video comes from 1991 and shows the Colorful Transitions décor package Albertsons used in the time prior to them coming to Houston.  The Lake Jackson Albertsons, which opened in the 1980s, would have had similar décor to what is in this video.

Here’s an B-roll clip from 2001 showing the Albertsons Blue & Grey Market décor package.  This is the décor package that most early Houston Albertsons stores would have opened with and some re-purposed former Albertsons stores, like the FM 529 & Highway 6 Food Town, still have this décor in their stores.  Some aspects from this décor, like the wall tiles in the meat department, still live on in some Houston Krogertsons and HEBertsons (former Albertsons that live on as Kroger and HEB stores): https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1505305/m1/

Food Lion

There’s not really a that much to say about Food Lion. They encountered the exact same issues at the same time as the Houston Division, and closed on the same timeline. As such there’s not a whole lot to see in these two 1997 B-roll clips, but they do have some views of the exterior of a Food Lion going out of business sale. Here are some interviews with a few customers.

Kroger

One of the most iconic supermarket décor packages has to be the Kroger Bauhaus décor that was used in the 1970s and 1980s and survived until the 2010s at some Kroger locations.  The Bauhaus décor is closely associated with the Kroger Greenhouse architectural design that was used by Kroger for their new stores built during the Bauhaus era.  The Portal has several videos which really show off several aspects of the Bauhaus décor as it existed in the 1980s.  I’ll start off by showing the videos from the earliest years and then move towards the newer ones.  With that in mind, let’s go Krogering!

The first video comes to us from 1981, and it shows off the Bauhaus décor when it was still relatively young.  More than that, the video shows off UPC scanner technology for the days when electronic checkouts were still fairly young itself.  In this video, we see two technologies discussed which were designed to make customers more trusting of electronic checkouts (yes, a lot of customers were wary of them when they first came out): talking checkouts which say the price as items are scanned and itemized receipts.  While itemized receipts are common now, talking checkouts did not exactly become common.  I do think some self-checkout systems do talk though.

Another interesting thing to keep an eye on in this video is the cart.  It was not uncommon in the 1980s and prior for supermarkets to have carts where the baskets flipped up when not in use and the front of the cart opened up so clerks could pull items directly off the cart as they checked them out.  Since these Bauhaus stores did not have conveyor belts for customers to put their scanned items on (they did have conveyor belts which moved the items towards the baggers), Kroger did implement the fold-down gate design that you see here in 1981. By the 1980s couponing had become all the rage taking over the “stamp” mania This video about Krogers use of coupons also shows some of the Bauhaus décor from the checkout area.  Also, check out those Cost Cutter cigarettes at the registers!  Cost Cutter was Kroger’s value store brand at the time and the Cost Cutter scissors logo was easy to find all over Kroger stores at the time.  I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing Kroger no longer has store brand cigarettes! We now move forward to 1984 and the topic is impulse buys.  Specifically, the topic is how Kroger spurs on impulse buys with the design of their Bauhaus store.  In this video are a lot of scenes from various corners of a Bauhaus Kroger.  It’s worth watching it for that.  Also, in the upper right corner at around 0:35 in the video, you can see the little wooden trellis that Kroger used in their gourmet cheese display at Bauhaus Krogers in the 1970s-early 1990s.  Kroger eventually, and sadly, removed those displays to extend selections of regular items. The year is 1985.  How are you going to pay for your groceries, cash or check?  Wait, Kroger is now accepting debit cards!  Whoa!  Predictions are made that customers will still mostly continue to pay by cash and check for the foreseeable future.  Well, that might have been mostly true through the early 1990s, but certainly that prediction didn’t age very well beyond that!

The year is now 1986.  French musician Jean-Michel Jarre is causing massive traffic jams with his Rendez-vous Houston concert and fireworks show in downtown Houston and the topic of beef is popular in the Metroplex.  I’m mostly posting this video because of the “Service at no extra cost” sign at the meat counter.  I remember that sign well!  In front of that sign would have been the little semi-circle brick floor in front of the meat case that always caused a racket when you moved a cart over it.  Some ideas are better in theory than in practice, but at least the service sign is really neat. We stay in the year 1986 for the next video.  This video is probably the wildest video in this whole post.  It seems that Kroger decided to hold a singles night in 1986 where they invited singles to come out to a Bauhaus Kroger to try to find love over blindfolded ‘guess that produce’ games!  The crowd for the singles night was quite large though.  Given that, I wonder why Kroger no longer has single nights. Internet dating sites cannot compare with the awesomeness that is the Kroger Bauhaus produce department lights!  Oh, this video really helped me bring back memories of those Decorated Cakes displays at Bauhaus Kroger stores as well!

Piggly Wiggly:

Yes, believe it or not, Piggly Wiggly did have stores in Houston at one time in the 1960s at the very least.  Here is a silent film showing a Metroplex Piggly Wiggly in 1968.

As you can imagine, Piggly Wiggly didn’t seem to be fairing much better in the Metroplex than they did in Houston.  Here’s a 1977 video showing how a Piggly Wiggly converted into a discount, bulk grocery format called Sav-U.  Also, I believe that is a Sears catalog store next to the Sav-U location:

Randall’s/Tom Thumb:

The following two videos are not news clips from KXAS, but rather they are 30 minute interviews conducted by the Abilene Christian University TV station.  Nonetheless, these videos are still housed at the Portal and I think they are quite interesting.  One is a video from 1985 where Bob Onstead, founder of Randall’s Food Markets, and Bob Gowens, a then-Randall’s executive, were interviewed about the history of Randall’s and how they manage the chain.  There are a lot of good insights in this interview and it helps explain how Bob Onstead built a small grocer that was able to reach the top of the Houston grocery market in the 1980s.  Also, given how much we hear about Texas products in current HEB marketing, it’s interesting how Randall’s was quite committed to selling beef from Iowa!  Randall’s did have very high quality beef in the 1980s so maybe they were on to something: 

In 1986, the same ACU TV show interviewed Charles Cullum of the Cullum Companies,  which owned Tom Thumb at the time, about the history and operations of Tom Thumb.  Once again, it’s not difficult to see how Tom Thumb was able to reach the top of the Metroplex grocery marketshare list, and would later make a perfect match for a merger with Randalls.

Safeway:

Safeway had a very major presence in the Metroplex at one time just like they had in Houston.  A very large number of KXAS news clips were filmed within Safeway stores.  Thus, it’s hard to pick out the best of the bunch, but I’ll try to do my best. The first news clip comes to us from 1978 when Safeway shut down their bread plant in the Metroplex because federal inspectors found insect activity.  With news like this, it’s no wonder why Safeway pulled out of Texas a decade later!  I’m sure Marvin Zindler would have had a lot to say about this story! 

If you’re a fan of the TV game show Supermarket Sweep, you’ll probably like the next clip from 1982A woman won a shopping spree at a Metroplex Safeway.  Some well-aged Safeway décor is quite visible in this video.  One thing this video reminded me of is that Safeway stores had this Christmas garland looking stuff wrapped around the edges and dividers (with the Safeway logo) of their refrigerated cases back in the day and they, like some other grocers, had an Astroturf-like lining to the meat cases. Also from 1982 is this B-roll footage from a Safeway Marina store. While the Houston division never built any Marina style stores one was transfered from the Dallas division prior to closing, and would end up becoming an AppleTree. I mentioned talking cash registers earlier in the Kroger section of this post, but here is a video about talking registers at a Safeway in 1982.  You can notice this larger store includes much more modern 1980s décor compared to what was likely 70s remnants in the Marina Store. 

Here is some exterior footage from 1987 when Safeway pulled out of the Metroplex. It includes an interview with an employee who learned that day he was loosing his job, and some exterior shots of an 80’s pylon store. 

Here’s some further coverage of Safeway’s exit from the Metroplex including some discussion of the Metroplex grocery marketshare at the time in 1987.

There are some wonderful photographs in the Portal database to go along with the photos.  Here are some 1960s photos of two Safeway Marina stores in Abilene, TX.  The Marina design is one of the most recognizable exterior designs of supermarkets.  Some Safeway Marina stores are still open in other parts of the country, but they are considered quite small by modern standards.  However, they were considered quite large in the 1960s and one can see that they even had enough room to sell clothing!

 

Finally, here is an interesting newspaper ad related to Safeway, Kroger, Eagle (Lucky Stores), and Minimax Texas Super Foods from the a 1983 issue of the South Belt Leader newspaper from Southeast Houston.  This Texas Super Foods ad, which spans two pages (the other page is accessible from the link below), has a comparison of prices between the four chains.  For the most part, Safeway was the most expensive.  That probably isn’t a surprise to most readers. 

Winn-Dixie

Winn-Dixie never entered Houston, although they did have a ring of stores around the area in Bryan, College Station, Port Arthur, Orange, and Port Neches.  Nonetheless, they did have stores in the Metroplex after they purchased the Buddies chain in 1976.  I thought that it might be interesting to look inside a Texas Winn-Dixie.  Here is a clip showing their décor in 1980

Here is a video showing a 1990s Winn-Dixie Marketplace store in Ft. Worth.  Interestingly, the store still had a Buddies sign in addition to the Winn-Dixie sign.  The video is partially blank in some spots, but the relevant parts are visible.

I hope you have enjoyed viewing these grocery videos and other resources!  I have good news for you if you’re left wanting more retail videos!  While I tried to select what I believe to be the best and most relevant videos and photos to post in this blog entry, the reality is that there are at least twice as many grocery-related videos on the Portal than what I could post here.  That means there is a lot left for everyone to explore on the Portal website.  The Portal is constantly adding new resources to their database, so there might be more great stuff to view in the future.  If you find any great grocery-related videos from the Portal, please share them with us in the comments. Also, if you would like to add any additional information about these videos, please feel free to comment about it below.

Now, you might be wondering about non-grocery retail videos.  Yes, the Portal has plenty of those as well!  There will be a part two to this post in the future where we will delve into some great non-grocery retail videos from the Portal.  Stay tuned to Houston Historic Retail for that and other upcoming posts!

Reader Comments

  1. Well done anonymous!

    There is a lot of stuff to unpack here and I really enjoyed the trip to the past. Grocery stores are still a place for singles to meet even if it is not a store sponsored event. I can’t say that I ever saw an event quite like the singles night at any grocer or retailer, it is a neat idea.

    Shoppers back then have similar doubts about technology that we still have in 2021. Those scanner systems forever changed the shopping experience forever, much like online shopping has done in the past 20 years.

    1. Thanks, I’m glad that you liked this. Stay tuned for Part II, I know for a fact that there’s a lot in there that you will really like. You’re right that singles still meet at grocery stores even without the events. One great place to meet people back in the day in supermarkets was in the movie/game rental department. This was especially true at a grocer who had a nice video rental department like a Randall’s. After meeting over a movie on the shelf, you could pick up some blank audio cassettes at the register and make your new date a mixtape! Young people just won’t understand all of this, lol.

      It did seem like supermarkets in the 1980s and prior did try harder than they do now at being part of the community and holding community events. The closest supermarket to me in the 1980s was a Safeway and it seemed like they had some kind of community event going on at the store or in the parking lot at least once every other week. It seemed like malls had a lot more community events back then as well. Perhaps some of these big, national chains like Kroger ought to have more community events to get people to view them as positively as customers tend to view local and regional chains like HEB. It may also bring more customer traffic through the stores.

      About a decade ago, I was in Akron, OH, and I stopped at an Acme Fresh Markets supermarket there. Acme Fresh Markets is a local chain in Akron and isn’t affiliated at all with the Acme chain known for their presence in the Philadelphia area (the one that was the subject of the famous Acme Style blog). While Acme Fresh Markets lives in complete anonymity nationally, the store I visited was a beautiful store and I also noticed that they had a community room at the side of the store. It seems that Acme Fresh Markets allows organizations to use their community rooms for free with the only stipulation being that events with food have to be catered by Acme Fresh Markets. This seems like a great way to be part of the community and I’m sure it helps their sales as well. Link: https://www.acmecatering.com/community-rooms-main/

      The days of clerks manually ringing up products and using cash all the time seem like such a long time ago! If it wasn’t cash, it was people holding up the line with checks that had to be verified by a manager or people paying by card and then the clerks having to make imprints of the credit card on carbon paper and checking IDs! Once again, young people just won’t understand, lol.

  2. Tom Thumb wasn’t exactly a perfect match for Randalls (under the Tom Thumb interview section). They had some similar design philosophies and merchandise mix but the store layouts, locations, management style, and store sizes were very different, ultimately leading to the demise of Randalls and their acquisition by Safeway. A net loss, really.

    1. Bob Onstead’s son Randall Onstead discussed the Randall’s-Tom Thumb merger in a speech he gave in Chicago in 2003 after he took over operations of Dominick’s. This speech is on YouTube and the relevant part is at the 25 minute mark in this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYW6x5vjpl0

      Randall commented that there were some issues initially when Randall’s took over Tom Thumb in regards to Tom Thumb’s debt and people in Dallas not accepting management being in/from Houston. Randall said this was resolved when Bob Onstead moved to Dallas. His implication was that just having one of them up in Dallas gave Tom Thumb people a different outlook and a level of acceptance. By the end of the Onstead’s involvement, Randall said the Tom Thumb part of the operation was worth a lot more than Randall’s.

      Looking at things now, one can see what Randall Onstead was talking about seeing how Tom Thumb is a lot stronger than Randall’s stores. HEB’s presence in Houston and Austin and their only small presence in Dallas probably has a lot to do with that, but that is changing and I’m sure Albertsons/Safeway’s fortunes in the Metroplex will change the way it did in Houston decades ago when HEB entered this market. Still, even Safeway standardization aspects aside, Tom Thumb stores and Randall’s stores in Houston have a similar feel to them compared to, say, a Randall’s and a Safeway store in Seattle where Safeway is a bit more mainstream-oriented than upscale-oriented, and they seem to be catering to the same customer niche.

      Whether the Randall’s-Tom Thumb merger was successful or not can be debated. It does seem that Tom Thumb was the better asset when the Onstead’s sold the business and so that might have been good for them, but perhaps Tom Thumb might have been better off without Randall’s involvement. Then again, given Cullum’s debt, Randall’s involvement might have been necessary because anyone else taking over Tom Thumb might have provided more of a cultural shock to the company that ultimately came when Safeway took over. It’s hard to say.

  3. Wow what a great collection of clips!!!!

    I worked at Randall’s during high school and that interview reflects the character the store used to have. No wonder they failed after selling out. Still have family members that have stayed on jumping from closing store to closing store as managers.

    1. Hi Marc U., I’m glad that you enjoyed watching that interview with Bob Onstead and Bob Gowens. I didn’t work for Randall’s, but I did shop there quite a bit when they were independent and the things Onstead and Gowens said in the video really did reflect what shopping was like at Randall’s. They really did seem to have the difficult combination of being cutting edge, but also focused on customer service and top-notch presentation.

      I liked how Bob Onstead said that he liked shopping at a Randall’s store. Sometimes I wonder if other grocery executives actually shop at their stores and put up with some of the corner cutting that their stores implement.

      This video isn’t from the Portal database, but you and your family might enjoy it. It’s a video Randall’s mailed to people in Lufkin when they opened their store there in 1992 (which was in the Kmart shopping center by the mall, both Kmart and Randall’s are long gone there). It gives a nice tour of one of their stores at the time. https://youtu.be/h-eLf2uurLU

  4. What a treasure trove!

    Though a few self-check outs read out prices now, I imagine the talking scanner never caught on because it was too loud and/or interrupted any conversation that that the customer and checker might need to have. Imagine several of them going on at once, reading prices in their Macintosh speech function-like voices…

    I think both Randall’s and Kroger were known for their singles nights in Houston in the 80s.

    1. Yeah, that was my thought about the talking scanners as well. It probably made the checkout area quite loud and probably quite confusing. Someone would hear prices being scanned and they might not know if it was from their checkout or a neighboring one. I could see that causing confusion. Even hearing all the scanner beeps at the checkout area of a modern supermarket can make one a bit loopy after a while, lol.

      I suppose it was pretty rare for me to be in a supermarket in the evenings during the 1980s so I must have missed out on seeing those singles nights or I just don’t remember them.. That’s too bad because they look really neat and I’m sure Randall’s especially would have done a lot to make those events quite special. It’s too bad supermarkets don’t host events in their stores for the community like that in modern times.

      Stay tuned for part 2 on this topic when we explore some non-grocery retail videos. I think you’ll like it if you liked this post.

  5. You commented in surprise at my blog’s recent guest post from AFB, but it looks like we weren’t the only ones with something up our sleeves! This is awesome! Congrats on becoming a contributor, Anonymous. Very well-written post, and the videos (as we’ve discussed elsewhere) are extremely cool looks back into the past. This archive is a great resource.

    1. Lol, you should have seen my reaction when I loaded the Mid-South Blog the other day and saw a photo of a Fred’s with a palm tree next to it! I figured you either made quite a trip to visit a Fred’s or AFB was guest writing a post!

      I’d like to say that I had something up my sleeve, but I had no idea I would even be writing this blog post when I made that comment about AFB’s post at your blog. Things came together quickly, but I’m glad that it did. These videos are too good not to share. Credit also has to go to Mike for suggesting a format for this post. There aren’t too many video-centered retail blog posts that I’m aware of and so it wasn’t easy to determine how much to embed and how much to link to using text links. I think Mike found a nice way to present everything.

      I know that I already shared most of these Kroger videos with you earlier, but the 1981 video about the scanners and also the 1983 Texas Super Foods ad I put in the Safeway section comparing prices between TSF, Kroger, Safeway, and Eagle are probably new to you. I’m not sure how useful that price information would be when looking at Kroger in the Mid-South, but it’s still neat to see how grocers stacked up decades ago.

      Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post. I think you’re really going to like what you’re going to see there. There should be some surprises in that one for you including discussion about a restaurant chain that was founded in Texas, but is now based in Tennessee. There will also be a little bit of discussion about a couple of chains from Arkansas. You can probably guess which those might be, lol, but maybe it won’t be completely what you’re expecting.

      1. Ah, in that case, definitely a quick turnaround on this post! Yeah, video posts aren’t too common (and embedding them can be pretty difficult), so nice idea all around. Glad it worked out.

        If that’s the same article you mentioned recently in a conversation with Northwest Retail, then yep, I’ve seen the price comparisons too. And sounds good, I’ll be on the lookout for part 2! Definitely intrigued…

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