This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, December 20, 2013.
Dairy products were delivered to homes daily, so there was no need for local grocery stores to sell milk or butter. Meats were sold at the butcher shop, fish at the fish shop and fruits and vegetables at the green grocer. The bakery might be another stop if bread wasn’t made at home. Imagine paying five or six different bills every month just for food.
Groceteria.com, a very comprehensive on-line history of grocery stores and supermarkets, says that most delivery and charge services stopped by the 1920s, but Exeter lagged behind the national trend. In 1946, although buying groceries on account was rare, it was still common for local grocers to advertise delivery services. Haley’s Suprette, which was part of the Independent Grocers Alliance or IGA, opened the first self-service market in Exeter on Water Street. The idea of allowing customers to browse the products was only about 20 years old at the time. Self-service required a complete redesign of the store – moving the food out from behind the counter. It also gave the customer more independence and, it turned out, browsing increased sales. Contrary to what many store owners believed about their customers, who were primarily women, shoppers preferred to choose and handle their own purchases.
The next big leap in food sales came when the specialty services, meat, baked goods, fruits & vegetables, began to appear in ordinary grocery stores or shopping plazas to make weekly marketing more efficient. This transition took place over several decades just after World War II. In 1946 in Exeter, there were three large markets, Haley’s Superette on Water Street, Walsh’s Market on Front Street and Woodman’s Cash Market on Lincon Street, that all followed the model of offering a variety of canned or dry foodstuffs along with meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. Walsh’s and Woodman’s still offered delivery. Alongside these larger stores there were still a dozen or so traditional small grocery shops and a few chain stores such as First National. Most of the small stores would disappear within the next two decades.
In 1954, the Exeter News-Letter, noted that supermarkets were changing the landscape of town. “With the opening of Paquette’s new supermarket today at the Portsmouth Avenue Shopping Center,” it noted on November 4th, “it is apparent that food merchants in town have taken the lead in streamlined merchandizing. Both the Exeter Food Center and the First National Stores on Water Street within recent years have been remodeled and gone to self-service.” Haley’s Market had already moved to the less congested Portsmouth Ave earlier that year and both it and Paquette’s offered the shopper one-stop self-service shopping with ample parking. The post-War society embraced the ease and convenience of driving in much the same way we now enjoy on-line shopping. Exeter’s downtown, with parking meters and perpendicular spaces were considered a hassle to most shoppers – especially if one was also wrestling with small children while fumbling for a nickel or navigating a tight space. Open parking lots seemed luxurious. And then the supermarket itself was seemingly enormous with everything conveniently located in one shop. No need to bring a battered old shopping basket, the new wheeled shopping carts provided a place to seat (and contain) the toddler while the customer could browse and comparison shop to her heart’s content. The shopping cart also allowed her to purchase more than she could carry. Now, the week’s worth of food could be purchased and transported home in just one trip. Innovations at Paquette’s, according to the news account, included, “conveyor belts on cashier counters operated by a foot lever. In the rear of the store is a built-in meat storage room, which can be maintained at any desired temperature. Popular music will be brought to the ears of shoppers by means of a high fidelity recording set.”
Paquette’s soon sold the store to the Champagne Company, New Hampshire’s largest chain at the time. Romeo Champagne, president and treasurer of the company, praised the previous owner in the Exeter News-Letter just after the sale in 1955, “We are all aware of the fine accomplishments of Mr. Paquette in the food industry in southeastern New Hampshire. He has served his community well and over the years he has been a leader in bringing to this area the most advanced marketing facilities available.” Stores compete with one another through special give-aways of dishware or trading stamps.
Today, of course, there are no supermarkets in Exeter proper, but given our continued love of the car it’s not particularly burdensome to drive to the next town to buy food. The small corner grocery stores of the early part of last century are either gone or converted into convenience stores. Although the mighty supermarket may the most efficient way to buy food, every now and then we still need to send one of the kids to a ready-mart for a can of cat food or hamburger buns.