Streamlining Shopping

Louise Curth, Gareth Shaw and Andrew Alexander explain how the British supermarket was born.

Shopping for food in supermarkets is such an everyday part of life that, for many people, it is hard to imagine a time when such shops did not exist. There are many older people, however, who remember when most groceries were sold in small, simple ‘counter-service’ shops. Only half a century ago, most food was acquired from staff who would pick, weigh and wrap it. In a society where personalised service was the norm, few retailers believed that Britons would ever be willing to join their American cousins in ‘wandering round a store hunting for goods’.

The situation on the other side of the Atlantic was radically different. Retailers in the United States began to experiment with the idea of self-service food stores during the early years of the twentieth century. They had good economic reasons for doing so, ranging from the reduction in the number of staff needed, to the ability to offer greater volumes of products at lower prices. In America the success of the ‘Piggly Wiggly Stores’ founded by Clarence Saunders in 1916 showed that consumers were very keen to purchase cheaper groceries. Although patrons were required to enter by means of a turnstile and then pass through a one-way maze of heavily stocked shelves, the concept quickly gained favour.

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