To save Main Street, state lawmakers in the 1930s passed “fair trade” legislation that set floors for retail prices, protecting small-town manufacturers and retailers from big business’s economies of scale. These laws permitted manufacturers to dictate prices for their products in a state (which is where that now-meaningless phrase “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” comes from); if a manufacturer had a price agreement with even one retailer in a state, other stores in the state could not discount that product. As a result, chain stores could no longer demand a lower price from manufacturers, despite buying in higher volumes.
These laws allowed Main Street shops to somewhat compete with chain stores, and kept prices (and profits) higher than a truly free market would have allowed. At the same time, workers, empowered by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, organized the A. & P. and other chain stores, as well as these buttressed Main Street manufacturers, so that they also got a share of the profits. Main Street — its owners and its workers — was kept afloat, but at a cost to consumers, for whom prices remained high.
But this world was unsustainable. It unraveled in the 1960s and 1970s, as fair trade laws were repealed, manufacturers discovered overseas suppliers and unions came undone. On Main Street, prices came down for shoppers, but at the same time, so did wage growth. Main Street was officially dead.
Louis Hyman, “The Myth Of Main Street”, The New York Times (9 April 2017), SR4.