From Brick and Mortar to One-Click Shopping: Groceries Then and Now

On September 5, 1916, a young entrepreneur named Clarence Saunders placed an ad in his local paper promising a party, complete with a beauty contest and prizes, for all customers willing to visit his new store in downtown Memphis on its opening day. Out of curiosity, many people did. Women and children were presented with flowers and balloons. Prizes were handed out until supplies were gone. A brass band played for queuing visitors. When the doors finally opened, the crowd saw a grocery store unlike any other they had ever seen. Rather than a row of clerks waiting to take orders, a wooden gate guided guests through rows of shelves neatly stocked with products. Merchandise was situated at eye level and positioned to be easily within reaching distance. Similar products sat side by side, and prices were clearly labeled to make comparison easy. Employees provided baskets and guided customers to small weight stations, where they were able to weigh their goods. Finally, they ended up at the front of the store where a cashier used a mechanical register to add up their total.

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The name of this revolutionary new grocery store concept? Piggly Wiggly. Within one year of the first store’s opening, nine more went up in Memphis. By 1932, the company operated 2,660 stores around the United States and most other independent and chain grocery stores became self-service stores during the 1920s.

Until Piggly Wiggly opened its doors, most Americans purchased what they could not grow at general stores. Customers gave orders to clerks who collected ingredients, weighing out dry goods from bulk barrels. Although this system enabled grocers to establish valuable relationships with customers, allowing them to shop on credit, the quality of goods was inconsistent and the choice limited. Labor costs were high, and these costs were passed on to customers in the form of markups—typically a third of the manufacturer’s cost. Finally, during peak shopping hours, long waits were common. By eliminating clerks, Saunders reasoned, you would increase the number of customers while reducing costs. Saunders ensured that these savings were passed on to customers, which helped establish trust in the Piggly Wiggly brand during a period of American history (World War I was in full swing) when many Americans were struggling financially.

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As historian Mike Freeman notes in an essay on Saunders in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, “Saunders... understood more clearly the changes brought to society by technology than his peers,” anticipating the rise of suburbia and the ubiquity of automobiles in the United States. His model instantly elevated the importance of packaging, branding, and advertising in the food industry, and ushered in an age of fierce competition between brands. Consumers also preferred the convenience of being able to purchase many different types of food in one location—Piggly Wiggly stores were the first to employ refrigerated cases, where meat and produce could be kept fresher longer.

By the late 1930s, big grocery chains like Kroger and A&P began developing their own supermarkets. Cost-cutting became a major selling point, with chains competing to offer the cheapest possible prices for popular products. By the 1950s and 1960s, many of the big food retailers introduced trading stamps, which functioned like tickets that could be redeemed for kitchen goods, furniture, and a wide variety of other products. By the 1970s, stores switched to promoting discount prices and offering coupons.

Although the growth of the supermarket concept was slowed by the onset of World War II, the economic boom which followed the war changed the landscape of how Americans shopped for food forever. During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of small independent grocers closed as the major chains steadily increased their share of the market. Returning soldiers, hungry for the foods they were exposed to during the war, dictated a shift in the American palette. With disposable incomes, more Americans were able to travel, which led to a greater demand for international foods in the retail market. Nationwide chains ensured that huge swaths of the population were exposed to these new foods, contributing to the rise of today’s foodie culture.

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Eventually, a wider interest in alternative diets and specialty foods led to the rise of specialty grocers. Today, as grocery stores around the country face steep competition in the form of online meal kits and home delivery shopping services, experiential retail is more important than ever. Smart labels, same day online order pick-up, and cashier-less payment options are all innovations which grocery stores are experimenting with to remain competitive in today’s market. As American palettes continue to evolve, stores are also experimenting with offering globally inspired but locally (or hyper-locally) made products, adding ever-more regionally specific flavors to their line of products.

Manitou Trading Company’s globally-inspired spice blends, sauce starters, and whole grain fusions are offered in ever expanding list of stores nationwide. Find a store near you now.