Giant's giant Israel Cohen: Pioneer and innovator created one of nation's top supermarket chains.

November 25, 1995

HE INSISTED ON being called "Izzy," though he had earned the right to be known as "Mr. Giant." Israel Cohen was Giant Food Inc. He embodied all aspects of the grocery chain he built and that now dominates the competitive mid-Atlantic market. Giant Food is a giant in its field because Izzy Cohen, who died Wednesday at 83, was an industry giant.

No matter where you travel in this region, "going to the Giant" is part of the local language. Whatever your household needs, chances are you can find it at the Giant. That was Mr. Cohen's magic. He knew consumer desires must be the paramount concern of grocers -- and he made sure Giant managers listened to their customers and responded.

Even as Giant grew to 164 stores -- 75 in the Baltimore region -- with sales of $3.7 billion and 26,000 employees, Mr. Cohen still ran a family-style business. Though he was board chairman and 50 percent owner, he could be found each week at a different Giant, sometimes bagging groceries or talking to workers and customers about ways to improve store operations.

Giant was a leader in innovation because Mr. Cohen insisted on it. It was the first to hire a consumer adviser -- former White House counselor Esther Peterson, heavily promoted her role and then implemented her suggestions. It was the first to put computer price scanners at checkouts. It reinforced customer loyalty by giving away thousands of computers to schools that accumulate Giant cash-register receipts. It pioneered bulk sales, in-store pharmacies, private-label products, unit pricing, salad bars, "bag boys" and in-house bakery, soft-drink and food-processing businesses.

In a cut-throat industry where a penny profit on a $1 transaction is the norm, Giant regularly tripled that amount. Mr. Cohen was always ahead of the competition, always seeking new ways to satisfy customers, always looking to technology and better business practices to increase Giant's market share and profitability.

Mr. Cohen was a simple man who lived in the same house where he grew up in Northwest Washington. His life's passion was Giant. He considered it a big, extended family in which he was the patriarch. Izzy Cohen understood customers and the grocery business. No wonder people feel comfortable "going to the Giant."

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