I was recently given a framed copy of a Loblaws flyer from July 1938.
The flyer provides some insight into how things have changed in food retail in the last eighty years. It is remarkable how different this flyer is from one we would see from Loblaws today.
So, what has changed in the past 80 or so years?
It will come as no surprise that things have changed significantly when it comes to prices. Prime rib roast for $0.24 per pound and pot roast for just $0.16 per pound? A dozen oranges for just 19 cents? A box of Rice Krispies or Bran Flakes for a mere 10 cents?
The relative price of products has also seen profound change. In 1938, two 14-ounce bottles of ketchup would have cost you 35 cents - more than a pound of prime rib roast. I just checked my local store’s website and today, you can get 2 bottles of Heinz Ketchup (for a total of 84-ounces) for $9.49 whereas a pound of prime rib costs $16.79 per pound.
Again, the relative change in price to beef is notable. We often hear about the green revolution and the impact of improved yields on food prices and availability. These relative price changes suggest that we have also experienced significant improvements in processing and packaging technology. This has helped to bring the relative price of these processed products down, relative to less processed or packaged products.
If you look at a flyer today, brands are much more prominent than they were in 1938.
The 1938 flyer does have some brands listed, but they are in much smaller font and secondary to the product description. Part of the difference is that today’s technology allows us to put pictures of products in a flyer and even the descriptions can feature the brand name.
This reflects the proliferation of choice today.
In many cases, in 1938 there was possibly one other choice for food products, if any at all. If I search ketchup on the Zehrs website, I immediately see at least four brands (Heinz, French’s, No Name, President’s Choice, and at least one specialty product) not to mention size and formulation variations (low sodium, organic, low sugar, spicy, etc). Modern food brands invest more in advertising their products and have loyal consumers. As such, brands become much more critical in the decision making. That means they must also feature more prominently in the flyer.
Seasonality and Product Availability
The flyer pictured is from the end of July. There is a note in the bottom right highlighting local fruits and vegetables - berries, cherries, celery, tomatoes, green onions, potatoes and beets, among others. In much larger font, however, are canned peaches, sweet corn, peas, carrots, and pears. We simply wouldn’t see this relative emphasis today. Part of the difference will be transportation and storage technology. We can move fresh products further and under better conditions allowing us to have amazing fresh produce available year round (let alone the end of July). There have also been advances in shorter season crops (sweet corn, for example) resulting in even more Ontario produce being available in late July than was the case in 1938.
Some Things Never Change
What is remarkable is that, despite all of the differences, we still use weekly flyers today. You can find them online and I still receive a flyer from several different stores in a bundle on my driveway every week (despite my continued efforts to opt out). Whether it’s Ginger Ale and Lime Rickey rather than Coke or Pepsi, soft drinks are on special and continue to be featured in prime positions on advertisements.
There is a lot to be learned just by looking at the old flyer and comparing it to what you see today. Times have surely changed.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. “Ghosts of Retail Flyers Past”. Food Focus Guelph (24), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, April 29th, 2019.