Magazine article History Today

Streamlining Shopping: Louise Curth, Gareth Shaw and Andrew Alexander Explain How the British Supermarket Was Born. (Cross Current)

Magazine article History Today

Streamlining Shopping: Louise Curth, Gareth Shaw and Andrew Alexander Explain How the British Supermarket Was Born. (Cross Current)

Article excerpt

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.

Other American businessmen joined the race during the depression of the 1930s. New supermarkets offered cash-strapped consumers the freedom to choose from a wide range of competitively priced pre-packaged goods at their leisure. According a British trade journal, The Grocer, supermarkets had by 1940 won 40 per cent of all food sales in the United States, a figure which rose to around 64 per cent by 1948.

On this side of the ocean, however, the concept of self-service food stores was almost unknown in the period immediately following the end of the Second World War. After years of rationing, consumers were resigned to long shopping expeditions spent queuing at grocery counters waiting to purchase limited supplies of food. Nor did the coming of peace signal the end of rationing. Immediately after the end of the war, the British economy was in a shambles. The government was faced with reallocating resources that were in short supply, rebuilding industrial potential and restoring exports. For the food trade, this signalled a continuation of a restrictive system of permits, selected food rationing and coupon cutting.

As a result, housewives were still forced to wait in long queues to be served by busy assistants. Although many people hoped that more food would become available, in fact even basic items such as bread became rationed for the first time. Between July 1945 and the end of 1949 each adult was allowed only one ounce more bacon and three additional ounces of fat, and fourpenny-worth more of meat, than they had consumed during the war.

According to most contemporary accounts the continuing shortages and rationing of food were the main reasons why retailing innovations were unsustainable in the late 1940s. Yet there were other reasons too why so many British businessmen were sceptical about `Americanising' their stores. The writer J.B. Priestley argued that entering into `a huge material rat race' was `alien to the English temperament'. Others were wary of unwanted intervention by government in favour of self-service methods.

In retrospect, it seems clear that state intervention was a necessary evil which would probably have taken hold regardless of whichever party was in power. In 1945, the manifestos for all three parties stressed the need to retain control of the production and distribution of food. The Labour Party praised the `fine work' the Ministry of Food had done during the war, and pledged to maintain `a well-organised system of distribution' at home. Such controls were also promised by the Liberals, who stated that they `must remain to ensure the fair distribution of available supplies to consumers'. …

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