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Saturday, January 16, 2016

CLYDE "SMITTY" SMITH, 1919-2016

When I graduated from college in 1969, I wasn’t sure what profession I should pursue.  I had spent a four year hitch in the Air Force during the 60’s and with my college years added to that,  I was thrust into a competitive job market at age 28.  Since I had worked in some grocery stores as a kid, I decided to take advantage of an offer from Lever Brothers Company to be a salesman calling on the grocery trade at the headquarters and retail level.

My interview with Smitty, December, 2010.
That probably doesn’t sound too exciting but that early job in the grocery business served a couple of good purposes:  It gave me an opportunity to gain valuable experience plus a good living as a peddler and more important,  it gave me a chance to meet Clyde Smith, one of the most savvy , intelligent, and nice guys I ever met.  By the time I met Mr. Smith in 2010, I was retired from selling but was writing stories on various subjects for the Arizona and Scottsdale Republic newspapers.  However, any tips I would receive from readers that pertained to grocery stores always gained my attention first.

The grocery trade is one that stays in one’s system even after they leave the business.  Although Mr. Smith’s “Smitty’s” markets were long gone from the Phoenix scene by 2010, he was making, at age 91, a tour to promote his recently published book about his life in the business.  I bought the book and quickly discovered that Smitty was not just another guy who happened to have some accidental success selling groceries; Smitty was a genius and a pioneering one at that.

From Mr. Smith’s example and my own experience calling on the grocery trade, it was easy to understand how the business gets into one’s blood.  If Horatio Alger, the 19th century author of many “rags to riches” stories, had been alive during Clyde Smith’s lifetime, he would have had a perfect example of one of his heroes. 

Born poor in Iowa in 1919, Smith worked in coal mines and other low level jobs before, at age 17, he made his way to Ames, Iowa in 1936.  Times were understandably tough as the Great Depression was in its eighth year.  However, Clyde was still able to land a position at Rushing’s Market, a small grocery store in the Ames area.  That job was the break of a lifetime and a distinct turning point in his life.  He caught on quickly and learned all the basic aspects of the retail grocery trade.  That experience combined with logic and a “go for it” attitude served him well.  By 
1957, he was operating six Smitty’s stores in Iowa.

Smitty passing savings on coffee to customers
 Sensing an opportunity Smitty eventually opened 20 stores in the Phoenix area between 1961 and 1980 and in the 1970’s those stores controlled 35% of the Phoenix grocery business. His formula was pretty simple:  He used the concept of mass merchandising by buying large quantities from suppliers and passing the savings on to his customers.  29 cent chicken dinners and 29 cent gallons of milk were hard to pass up!

Smitty died recently on January 3, 2016 at age 96.  He was a fine businessman, proudly served his country during World War II in the 1940’s, and will be sorely missed by anyone fortunate enough to have met him.

(Google “Smitty’s Big Town” for former employee comments through Facebook  regarding  Mr. Smith)