Book Review: My-Te-Fine Merchant. Fred Meyer’s Retail Revolution

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At the time of his death in 1978, Fred Meyer had five successful “one stop shopping centers” in Alaska, part of a retail empire that included 59 other stores in three other western states. His keen focus and domineering management style fostered a retail revolution that continues today.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon. Accordingly, I have early memories of visiting Fred Meyer’s “One Stop Shopping Centers”.6a010536b86d36970c014e865b6064970d-800wi

In 1964, our family visited the Raleigh Hills store in southwest Portland. It was before Christmas and my mother gave me the princely sum of $5 to go and buy some presents for other family members. I recall wandering through the candy aisle, then circling back for a nice Christmas ornament. Even as a nine-year-old, I could attest that “You’ll find it at Fred Meyer.”

The Raleigh Hills store, like the other stores scattered throughout Portland in the 1960s, was revolutionary. It was a huge building featuring clothing, groceries, health and beauty items and hardware. This included many staples like tomato sauce and canned vegetables that bore the then-familiar “My-Te-Fine” house label at Fred Meyer stores (thus the “My-Te-Fine Merchant” title for the book).

Fred Leeson’s book about Fred Meyer, “My-Te-Fine Merchant: Fred Meyer’s Retail Revolution”  casts light on the founder of these supercenters, from his birth as Fritz Grubmeyer in Germany to his arrival in Portland in 1910.. The book documents his start as a merchant, operating a horse-drawn coffee cart through the streets of Portland.

Before settling permanently in Portland, Meyer traveled to Nome to try his hand at gold mining. Things did not go well—and the experience soured Meyer on further dealings in Alaska before his management team urged him to rethink his position. Meyer returned from Nome to Seattle. Meyer admitted he liked Seattle better than Portland, but ultimately returned to the Rose City in deference to his wife, Eva.

6a010536b86d36970c014e5fbf2c9e970c-580wiThroughout Meyer’s life, there is ample reference to his reputation as a domineering boss. This includes episodes where he brought his wife, Eva, to tears during long management team meetings. But it also reveals that Meyer had an uncanny ability to discern opportunities to improve his operation, with the end result being lower costs. To Fred Meyer, that meant he could lower prices and sell more goods to his customers.

“Relentless” might be too gentle of a term. Meyer was all-business, all the time. This included his trips throughout the U.S. and to Europe, where he spent time examining the details of retailing and distribution. His goal was to take the best practices from other operators and graft them into the Fred Meyer retail machine.

Meyer’s laser-focus on costs and efficiency, plus his over-the-top attention to detail made him a tough competitor. Further, he accurately predicted the role of the automobile and the shift of commerce from downtown to the suburbs. This afforded his stores significant competitive advantages when new freeways were built and new suburban communities blossomed.

Leeson accessed recorded oral histories, extensive newspaper accounts and public court records to assemble the book in spite of Meyer’s efforts to obscure parts of his personal history.

The book attempts to piece together details of his relationships with his blood relatives, which dropped off precipitously from the late 1920s onward. The split apparently stemmed from undisclosed business-related disagreements.

While Meyer lived quite frugally, he bequeathed 99 percent of his wealth to charity, including the funding of a $120 million charitable trust.

When Meyer entered the retail business, it was common for grocers to take orders over the phone and deliver them to customers. If shoppers showed up at the store, which typically was smaller than a present-day convenience store, they would give a list to the grocer or point to the items on the shelf. The grocer then would pick the items and wrap them up. There were different stores for staples like wheat, rice and sugar and fresh vegetables. Further, customers enjoyed credit at the store: bills typically were settled once a month.

Meyer could see this process was ripe for disruption and introduced “cash and carry” stores. Many small grocery stores went out of business as Meyer’s model became more popular with consumers. That’s because the new efficiencies brought lower costs—and lower prices.

Fred Meyer ruled his retail empire until past his 90th birthday.  Meyer’s senior managers stayed on for decades, in spite of his adversarial management style. Leeson’s book details his efforts to build a solid team of managers and trusted confidants to carry on after his death.

This readable, well-documented story of Fred Meyer pulls back the veil on one of the west’s most successful retailers. Whether it is the stories of his blistering management style or his far-reaching vision for how a community would grow and develop, retailers and shoppers alike will appreciate Meyer’s tenacity in building his empire.

Fred Leeson lives in northeast Portland, Oregon. He was a reporter for the Oregon Journal from 1972 to 1982 and for the Oregonian from 1982 to 2007. In 1973, he interviewed Meyer. Leeson credits the idea for this book to his wife, Barbara Coleman. In 2012, they were having coffee in the newly-remodeled Hollywood District store in Portland. She asked Leeson “Has anyone ever done a biography of Fred Meyer?” And now, the answer is “Yes.”

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