Michael J. Cullen
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Michael J. Cullen (1884–1936) was an American entrepreneur and salesman known as the founder of the King Kullen grocery store chain, widely considered to be the first supermarket founded in America. He is recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as the inventor of the modern supermarket.
Michael J. Cullen
Michael J. Cullen
Newark, New Jersey, United States
Queens, New York City, United States
|Occupation||Entrepreneur, businessperson, salesman, president, chief executive officer|
|Parent(s)||Mr. and Mrs. Cullen|
Cullen was born in 1884 as the child of Irish immigrants. He joined The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in 1902 at the age of 18 and worked for the firm for 17 years. In 1919, Cullen joined Kroger Stores and worked for the company until 1930. While working at Kroger, he developed the idea of a supermarket. He wrote a letter to the president of Kroger, proposing a new type of food store with a focus on low prices, larger square footage, cash sales, no delivery service, and low rent locations with lots of parking. In his proposal, Cullen suggested that this new type of store could achieve nearly ten times the volume and profits of the average Kroger or A&P store.
Cullen's letter went unanswered. Undaunted, and confident in his ability to see his idea become a reality, he quit his job and moved his family to Long Island to launch his own store. Cullen leased a vacant garage at the corner of 171st Street and Jamaica Avenue in Queens, just a few blocks from a busy shopping district. On August 4, 1930, King Kullen Grocery Company opened the doors to the world's first supermarket. The store carried a range of approximately 1,000 items, including automotive accessories and hardware, as well as groceries. Success was rapid. People came from miles around. To many of his customers, Cullen offered convenient and affordable food. Bold newspaper ads described the store as the "World's Greatest Price Wrecker."
The chain expanded rapidly in the price conscious environment of the Great Depression. King Kullen stores reused large older building, including abandoned factories and warehouses, in low-rent location on the borders of populated areas. Facilities were simple. Service was minimal. Shopping carts were used and national brands were emphasized. There was a no frill bargain environment that resonated with depression era customers. Ample, free parking was available in order to appeal to customers with automobiles and encourage them to purchase large quantities. By 1936 there were 17 King Kullen supermarkets turning-over approximately $6,000,000 annually. At the time Cullen had plans for faster national expansion and franchising. However, in 1936, at age 52, Cullen died suddenly following an appendix operation. Following his death, the rate of growth of the firm slowed.
Existing grocery store retailers, including leading chains Safeway, Kroger and The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, found the supermarket concept easy to imitate. By 1934 there were 94 supermarkets in the United States. By 1936, the year of Cullen's death, there were 1,200 in 85 cities. By 1950 the number had increased to 15,000. King Kullen continued to grow and expand through the leadership of his wife and the support of family members. However, relative to competitors, this rate of growth has been slow. From 17 stores in 1936 the firm has grown to 52 stores in 2009 (effectively 35 stores in 73 years). King Kullen is today the 72nd largest supermarket chain in the United States, with 52 stores and US$940m in sales in 2009. It is owned and operating by the third generation of his descendants.
As of October 2016, the chain has 34 King Kullen locations, and also operates five "Wild by Nature" natural and organic markets.
- Piggly Wiggly, pioneered self service in 1916
- Shopping Environments: evolution, planning and design, Peter Coleman, p40
- Supermarket News 2010 Top 75, Jan 25,2010, p11