The Innovation of Grocery Stores
A. At the very beginning of the 20th century, the American grocery stores offered comprehensive services: the customers would ask help from the people behind the counters (called clerks) for the items they liked, and then the clerks would wrap the items up. For the purpose of saving time, customers had to ask delivery boys or go in person to send the lists of what they intended to buy to the stores in advance and then went to pay for the goods later. Generally speaking, these grocery stores sold only one brand for each item. Such early chain stores as A&P stores, although containing full services, were very time-consuming and inefficient for the purchase.
B. Born in Virginia, Clarence Saunders left school at the age of 14 in 1895 to work first as a clerk in a grocery store. During his working in the store, he found that it was very inefficient for people to buy things there. Without the assistance of computers at that time, shopping was performed in a quite backward way. Having noticed that this inconvenient shopping mode could lead to tremendous consumption of time and money, Saunders, with great enthusiasm and innovation, proposed an unprecedented solution—let the consumers do self-service in the process of shopping—which might bring a thorough revolution to the whole industry.
C. In 1902, Saunders moved to Memphis to put his perspective into practice, that is, to establish a grocery wholesale cooperative. In his newly designed grocery store, he divided the store into three different areas: ‘A front lobby’ served as an entrance, an exit, as well as the checkouts at the front. ‘A sales department’ was deliberately designed to allow customers to wander around the aisle and select their needed groceries. In this way, the clerks would not do the unnecessary work but arrange more delicate aisle and shelves to display the goods and enable the customers to browse through all the items. In the gallery above the sales department, supervisors can monitor the customers without disturbing them. ‘Stockroom’, where large fridges were placed to maintain fresh products, is another section of his grocery store only for the staff to enter. Also, this new shopping design and layout could accommodate more customers to go shopping simultaneously and even lead to some unimaginable phenomena: impulse buying and later supermarket.
D. On September 6, 1916, Saunders performed the self-service revolution in the USA by opening the first Piggly Wiggly featured by the turnstile at the entrance store at 79 Jefferson Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Quite distinct from those in other grocery stores, customers in Piggly Wiggly chose the goods on the shelves and paid the items all by themselves. Inside the Piggly Wiggly, shoppers were not at the mercy of staff. They were free to roam the store, check out the products and get what they needed by their own hands. There, the items were clearly priced, and no one forced customers to buy the things they did not need. As a matter of fact, the biggest benefit that the Piggly Wiggly brought to customers was the money-saving effect. Self-service was optimistic for the improvement. ‘It is good for both the consumer and retailer because it cuts costs,’ noted George T. Haley, a professor at the University of New Haven and director of the Centre for International Industry Competitiveness, ‘if you look at the way in which grocery stores (previous to Piggly Wiggly and Alpha Beta) were operated, what you can find is that there are a great number of workers involved, and labour is a major expense.’ Fortunately, the chain stores such as Piggly Wiggly cut the fat.
E. Piggly Wiggly and this kind of self-service stores soared at that time. In the first year, Saunders opened nine branches in Memphis. Meanwhile, Saunders immediately applied a patent for the self-service concept and began franchising Piggly Wiggly stores. Thanks to the employment of self-service and franchising, the number of Piggly Wiggly had increased to nearly 1,300 by 1923. Piggly Wiggly sold $100 million (worth $1.3 billion today) in groceries, which made it the third-biggest grocery retailer in the nation. After that, this chain store experienced company listing on the New York Stock Exchange, with the stocks doubling from late 1922 to March 1923. Saunders contributed significantly to the perfect design and layout of grocery stores. In order to keep the flow rate smooth, Saunders even invented the turnstile to replace the common entrance mode.
F. Clarence Saunders died in 1953, leaving abundant legacies mainly symbolised by Piggly Wiggly, the pattern of which spread extensively and lasted permanently.