According to Joseph Siegel, the US National Retail Federation's resident guru on the history of shopping, trading in the wee small hours began on a grand scale in Los Angeles during the Second World War.
The practice, he says, was introduced by food stores to cater for the needs of defence workers who were cranking out aircraft, missiles and other weapon-related materials as if there was no tomorrow.
The working day was divided into three shifts; when Rosie the Riveter clocked off at midnight, she still needed to shop for food, so the supermarkets obliged - eventually driving the city's "mom and pop" stores out of business. And when the war ended thepractice spread to the industrial cities of the Midwest, and on to the wide world beyond.
This week California's historical legacy was thriving. Ventura Boulevard, several miles north-west of the Hollywood Hills, is an affluent neighbourhood, home to Michael Jackson's family, show business executives and numerous celebrities. At 12.30am customers are still ordering make-your-own pizzas in the giant Ralph's supermarket, gobbling down late-night burgers in Jerry's Famous Deli, and cruising the aisles of the local drug store.
All this is similar to many other major western cities these days, although Los Angeles is the only metropolis in which large numbers exist on other people's time zone - rising at 5am so as not to lose out to competitors on the east coast. But there is adifference.
A few blocks away from the supermarket, Kinko's, "your office away from home", offers an all-night service, a dream come true for the travelling workaholic, insomniac or incorrigibly ambitious executive. For a fee, you can use the telephones, message services, photocopier, printing facilities and other paraphernalia of office life.
The manager, Robert Crawford, estimates that the branch - one of 810 nationwide, 95 per cent of which are open 24 hours - usually deals with a few dozen clients from midnight to dawn. These include a high proportion of students, working overnight on college papers on one of the store's 12 computers.
There are also business executives desperately trying to complete copying documents, processing graphics, or printing out demonstration cards for a breakfast sales pitch the following morning. Nor is it unusual for someone to drop in at 2am for a half-hour video conference with a manager in London (where it is 10am), or a representative in Sydney (where it is 6pm).
A round-the-clock operation makes commercial sense to Kinko's. According to Mr Crawford, some staff would have to be there all night anyway, to process major copying orders that cannot be done during the day because of the demand from drop-in customers.
"We estimate we take about 20 per cent of our income between midnight and 6am," he says. "So it's well worth it."Reuse content