The Supermarket Revolution

By Wedd, George | Contemporary Review, February 1998 | Go to article overview

The Supermarket Revolution


Wedd, George, Contemporary Review


There are several contenders for the title of the Most Important Change in British Life over the last forty years. The universal use of the car; the spread of Information Technology; television; widespread higher education; and the subject of this article - the revolution in the way in which the British public's daily needs are met.

Let us go back and look at the way our needs were supplied a generation ago. It helps to be, as the writer of this article is, old enough to remember the way things were. The basis of the system was the small shop, either in a town centre or on a street corner. There was an enormous number of these; Oldham, in Lancashire, had a shop for every 41 residents. If it was a greengrocery store, the proprietor would go early each morning to see what was available in the local wholesale market. The goods he bought would be displayed in the shop, and that would he the range available. Retail trade took place under the shadow of Second-World-War rationing, only recently lifted, and the balance of advantage was in the shopkeeper's favour: hours were short, and service left - shall we say - something to be desired. It was a situation open for reform.

The reform came with the concept of the open shelves. This was not new; old photographs of nineteenth century American country stores show people taking the goods off the shelves and taking them to the clerk to pay for them. It was enlarged in the 1920s when an American store-keeper realised that the public could be let into the stock-room and would not create havoc but would instead take their baskets in orderly fashion to a check-out and queue to pay their bills. In the 1950s a British entrepreneur, Jack Cohen, was among the first shopkeepers to convert his shops to this idea. They were ordinary small shops in suburban shopping parades, and were soon outgrown in favour of large free standing sheds; but, interestingly, that idea is coming back as the big chains realise that there is still spending power to be tapped in town centres and 'mini-markets' reappear. Cohen's shops became the Tesco chain and recently it has overtaken its arch-rival Sainsbury's to become Britain's largest supermarket chain with 16.8 per cent of the market.

The demand from British shoppers was instant and insistent. Fifteen years of shortages and rationing, combined with the slowly climbing purchasing power of the 1950s and 60s, led to a complete reversal of all previous shopping patterns. This came as a thorough shock to all planners, developers, property owners and financiers, who had been planning for twenty years on the basis that the British shopper was a deeply conservative creature who would cling to the old habits of going to the town centre by bus and carry her (it was still 'her' who did the shopping) purchases home in large bags balanced on her knees and trudge home, through the rain, with her bags and small children from the bus stop. Perhaps a warning note should have sounded when shoppers refused to use some rather sophisticated layouts, and the upper-level shopping in Coventry proved a relative failure. The shopper was beginning to feel the power in her purse.

The traditional British town centre had not given very good service. Shops were small and cramped, often poky conversions of old houses. Nowadays a higgledy-piggledy street of quaint old shops has a certain period charm, but when they were the only kinds of shopping available the charm was hard to see. Opening hours were short; shop-workers were almost always untrained and poorly-paid, and gave the standard of service to be expected from such a labour force. Shops were highly specialised: stationers sold stationery, greengrocers sold vegetables - so that a shopping trip had to be carefully planned. It was not amusing to reach the end of the High Street with two full bags only to realise that one had forgotten some small but essential item that could only be bought a quarter of a mile back. …

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