First Self-Service Grocery Store Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With his Piggly Wiggly grocery store, Clarence Saunders introduced self-service grocery shopping and established the basis for the supermarket.

Summary of Event

On September 11, 1916, Clarence Saunders opened his first retail grocery outlet, which he named King Piggly Wiggly. This store and others that followed incorporated Saunders’s ideas regarding how best to organize, sell, and advertise grocery products. Unlike virtually every other store in the trade at the time, Saunders’s Piggly Wiggly featured self-service, which meant there was no need for the many clerks who served customers in more traditional grocery stores. Saunders’s was the first chain of stores to incorporate self-service. Marketing;self-service[self service] Piggly Wiggly grocery stores Grocery stores Retailing;grocery stores Self-service grocery stores[Self service grocery stores] [kw]First Self-Service Grocery Store Opens (Sept. 11, 1916)[First Self Service Grocery Store Opens (Sept. 11, 1916)] [kw]Self-Service Grocery Store Opens, First (Sept. 11, 1916)[Self Service Grocery Store Opens, First (Sept. 11, 1916)] [kw]Grocery Store Opens, First Self-Service (Sept. 11, 1916) [kw]Store Opens, First Self-Service Grocery (Sept. 11, 1916) Marketing;self-service[self service] Piggly Wiggly grocery stores Grocery stores Retailing;grocery stores Self-service grocery stores[Self service grocery stores] [g]United States;Sept. 11, 1916: First Self-Service Grocery Store Opens[04060] [c]Marketing and advertising;Sept. 11, 1916: First Self-Service Grocery Store Opens[04060] [c]Trade and commerce;Sept. 11, 1916: First Self-Service Grocery Store Opens[04060] [c]Business and labor;Sept. 11, 1916: First Self-Service Grocery Store Opens[04060] Saunders, Clarence

A native of Amherst County, Virginia, Saunders acquired his early experiences in the grocery trade while he was a young man in Clarksville, Tennessee. Saunders moved in 1900 to Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked as a clerk in a local grocery store. In 1904, he assumed the position of salesman for Shanks-Phillips, a Memphis grocery company. He spent a number of years learning the grocery business, and by 1915 he had moved from salesman to head of a grocery cooperative and finally had become the owner of a wholesale grocery business, the Saunders-Blackburn Company. Having seen the industry from every angle, Saunders concluded that the methods being used to deliver food and beverages demanded significant rethinking, especially given the combination of high operating costs and excessive credit so widespread among grocery outlets.

Interior view of the first Piggly Wiggly store shows the entrance turnstile, wicker baskets for customers to use in collecting their groceries, and the checkout counter.

(Library of Congress)

Saunders’s understanding of the grocery business encouraged him to move beyond self-service in organizing his stores. He mandated that each shelf item in his stores display a clearly marked price. This eliminated haggling over prices and thus quickened the pace of customers’ shopping. Saunders also introduced a new type of store design that compelled each patron to walk down every aisle and pass every type of grocery product before leaving the store. Saunders hoped this exposure would spark impulse buying and boost his sales. To encourage this buying, Saunders demanded that shelves be within easy reaching distance of customers and always fully stocked. Products appeared on shelves according to type and brand, facilitating customers’ searches for specific products. When customers were finished shopping, they passed through a turnstile, another innovation pioneered by Saunders, and a single clerk totaled the prices for all the items and packaged the goods. The exteriors of all Saunders’s stores were painted in blue, brown, and yellow, with the name Piggly Wiggly appearing in white. This standard design increased customer recognition.

Saunders understood the growing popularity of nationally produced brand-name goods and the widespread knowledge made available to customers through the national advertising of large-scale producers. By the 1910’s, national manufacturers had built up substantial levels of trust among customers through aggressive promotional campaigns that often made their products more appealing to customers than locally manufactured brands. Saunders’s stores capitalized on the free advertising provided by these manufacturers to lure customers and to reassure them of the quality of the products featured in Piggly Wiggly outlets. Saunders complemented this strategy with advertisements composed in his own unique prose. He also decorated his stores with thoughtfully crafted and patented fixtures and fittings to give the stores a modern appearance.

Saunders’s concern with details was evidenced in his dealings with employees as well. He insisted that no clerk handle merchandise or render assistance to a customer in choosing a grocery product, both long-standing traditions in the grocery trade. To reinforce customer confidence, all clerks in Saunders’s stores were required to wear sanitary uniforms provided by the company whenever they were on duty. The manual that stated the rules of appropriate conduct for all Piggly Wiggly employees noted that each clerk had an assigned task and should work at that task exclusively.

Saunders even hired experts who used the time-and-motion Time-and-motion studies[Time and motion studies] approach, made famous among large-scale corporations by Frederick Winslow Taylor, to study his employees and the ways they carried out tasks. These efficiency experts Efficiency experts aimed to remove all unnecessary motions and create the most time-effective means of accomplishing specific tasks. Saunders and his management team planned almost all aspects of the stores’ operations, from the handling of customer-damaged goods to the number of keys allocated to each outlet. Devices used in the operation of the stores, such as weights, were placed in locations that allowed clerks to handle products only once before transferring them to the customers. These techniques dictated practices throughout the growing Piggly Wiggly self-service chain, which was formally incorporated in 1919.

In developing his company’s methods, Saunders jettisoned time-honored practices that had marked the grocery business. Credit, which grocers had long made available to the majority of their customers, and delivery of orders had no place in a self-service system. Practices such as assisting customers in selecting goods also conflicted with Saunders’s guidelines for the behavior of all employees. Individual attention to customers had been the rule in the traditional grocery store; Saunders’s approach left customers alone and had them do much of the work that clerks performed in other stores.

The benefits of Saunders’s innovations quickly appeared in the company’s balance sheets. In the first six months of operation, the first Piggly Wiggly generated $114,000 in business. Saunders’s eye for detail and efficiency reduced operating costs $300 a month from those of the previous owners, who had conducted a grocery business in the same building. Saunders accomplished this feat with many of the previous owners’ employees, whom he kept on and retrained. By 1922, the Piggly Wiggly chain had grown to twelve hundred stores operating in twenty-nine states.

Saunders’s control of the Piggly Wiggly chain failed to survive an attack on his stock by hostile Wall Street interests. These speculators sought to make money by manipulating Piggly Wiggly’s stock price. In an effort to defend his company, Saunders secured $10 million in loans to do battle with the speculators, but despite his best efforts, he lost his grip on the grocery chain and faced economic ruin.

Saunders then made a spectacular appeal to the Memphis community for financial backing to repay the borrowed money. He argued that his personal failure would be bad for Memphis and its businesses. With powerful backing from the press, Saunders attempted to sell fifty thousand shares in the company to the citizens of Memphis. Open declarations of support from civic groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion seemed to promise a way out of his dilemma. Growing suspicions about his handling of Piggly Wiggly affairs, however, undermined this bid for community support and convinced Saunders to step down as head of the Piggly Wiggly chain. Before the end of 1924, he had sunk into bankruptcy.

By 1928, local backing in Memphis enabled Saunders to open another chain, which he called Clarence Saunders’—Sole Owner of My Name, but the business proved unable to withstand the impact of the Great Depression. Saunders tried again with a new grocery store, the Keedoozle, in which he introduced mechanical means of selecting and packing food and beverages. Despite years of effort, difficulties with the mechanized shopping devices prevented the store from ever operating as anticipated. Never despairing, Saunders prepared in the early 1950’s to open the “foodelectric,” another venture into automated shopping. He suffered a heart attack in October, 1953, however, and died before he had completed work on his new design.


Clarence Saunders’s self-service idea foretold sweeping changes in the grocery business. As a forerunner of the supermarket, Piggly Wiggly challenged the practices of established chains such as the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P). A&P grocery stores[A and P grocery stores] The grocery business included both small independent outlets and chain stores that pursued a strategy of multiple, low-inventory stores scattered over an area. Such outlets depended on a daily neighborhood trade, which later diminished in the age of the automobile and the refrigerator.

In both independent retailers and the chain stores, most grocery shopping in the United States retained its traditional character well into the 1930’s. Clerks dealt with each customer on an individual basis, including extending credit and delivering orders placed by telephone. Buyers did not handle the grocery items, which were situated behind counters. Clerks filled orders on an item-by-item basis, often suggesting related products to customers as a way of boosting sales. Once a patron’s order was filled, the clerk wrapped and packaged the groceries and totaled the bill, which the customer promptly settled or had recorded in a credit ledger. Speed and customer turnover played no role in the thinking of most grocery store owners.

The small-scale independents relied on high prices and high margins to generate their profits, as their volume of business was lower than that of chain stores. The independents’ grocery trade was usually anchored within a network of friends and neighbors. In contrast, chain stores pursued a strategy of volume sales, numerous outlets, and low prices to spur profits. By 1914, the A&P had introduced the Economy Store, which dispensed with most services commonly associated with grocery outlets. All business in such a store was conducted strictly on a cash-and-carry basis. This approach precipitated a sharp drop in prices and boosted sales among cost-conscious customers.

Still, neither the chains nor the independents had adopted self-service for their operations. Saunders combined the advantages of the chains with the notion of unhindered customer choice. Self-service encouraged impulse buying on the part of the consumer and stimulated volume, crucial in a growing chain that depended on low prices, high sales, and rapid turnover. Saunders’s ruthless standardization further reduced costs and made Piggly Wiggly one of the most efficient and rapidly growing grocery chains in the country. Saunders’s decision to embrace the notions of scientific management as the basis of his operations contrasted sharply with the practices of many independents, who even ignored the use of sales slips as a means of checking the turnover of grocery products.

By the mid-1920’s, Piggly Wiggly’s success had spawned a number of smaller self-service chains, such as Handy Andy stores, but Saunders’s ideas about store operation had yet to dominate thinking about grocery store organization. Only in the 1930’s, with the appearance of Michael Cullen’s Cullen, Michael King Kullen stores, King Kullen grocery stores would the supermarket begin to achieve dominance in grocery distribution. Cullen had operated an outlet in Herrin, Illinois, for the Kroger grocery chain in the 1920’s. He fruitlessly appealed to the vice president of Kroger to use company funds to test out his idea for a supermarket. Cullen finally persuaded Harry Socoloff, vice president of Sweet Life Foods Corporation, to contribute half of the start-up capital. With this backing, in August, 1930, Cullen opened a self-service store on Long Island that marked the beginnings of the supermarket.

Cullen’s stores featured low prices, minimal help, no services, only national brands, and well-stocked shelves, all factors that had made the Piggly Wiggly chain so successful. Unlike Saunders, Cullen chose to place his stores in low-rent districts, often in abandoned buildings with abundant floor space. He minimized store decoration and concentrated on lowering costs. The supermarkets benefited from the increasingly widespread use of the refrigerator, which allowed customers to make large purchases and to stock up on perishables. Increasing ownership of automobiles also facilitated supermarket shopping. Finally, the spread of radio to almost every home opened possibilities for advertising. Radio also enhanced the aggressive promotional campaigns of national brand manufacturers. Brand names became widely known, and this worked to the advantage of the supermarket chains that featured brand-name products.

By 1936, more than a thousand supermarkets were operating in the United States, exerting market pressure on chains that still relied on numerous small stores, such as A&P. By the end of the decade, John A. Hartford, son of A&P founder George Hartford, had persuaded his father that only a supermarket strategy would enable the mammoth A&P operation to survive and maintain its status as a leader in a competitive business. This decision ultimately made A&P the second-largest industrial corporation in the United States as measured by sales. By the 1950’s, supermarkets dominated food and beverage distribution in the United States. Marketing;self-service[self service] Piggly Wiggly grocery stores Grocery stores Retailing;grocery stores Self-service grocery stores[Self service grocery stores]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowlby, Rachel. Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Mixes sociology, cultural criticism, and literary scholarship to examine how Americans (as well as the French and the British) have come to view shopping. Includes discussion of the Piggly Wiggly chain and the history of the supermarket.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, John Nixon. “Annals of Finance.” The New Yorker, June 6, 1959, 128-150. Provides a thorough description of Clarence Saunders’s efforts to protect Piggly Wiggly against attacks by stock market speculators. Includes a brief description of Saunders’s personal life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charvat, Frank. Supermarketing. New York: Macmillan, 1961. The first chapter outlines the history of the supermarket. Discusses the founding of Piggly Wiggly and the ideas behind Saunders’s decision to open a self-service store. Also describes the King Kullen and Big Bear stores, which firmly established the supermarket in the grocery business.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayward, Walter S., and Percival White. Chain Stores: Their Management and Operation. 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1928. The first chapter provides a good analysis of the organization of a Piggly Wiggly store and how Saunders’s ideas about store layout, self-service, and monitoring costs gave the company a number of advantages. Includes contemporary reactions of other chain store operators to the role of Piggly Wiggly in changing patterns of food distribution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Michman, Ronald D., and Alan J. Greco. Retailing Triumphs and Blunders. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1995. Describes how retailers of various kinds have responded to changes in society and the marketplace. Chapter 4 is devoted to the development of the grocery business and the rise of the supermarket.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nystrom, Paul H. Economics of Retailing: Retail Institutions and Trends. 3d ed. Vol. 1. New York: Ronald Press, 1930. Describes the history of chain stores in the grocery business. Includes an account of the Piggly Wiggly chain and its impact on the trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strasser, Susan. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. 1989. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1995. Chapter 7 describes changes in retailing that occurred in the early twentieth century. Includes a first-rate analysis of the grocery trade and Piggly Wiggly’s place in the new patterns of food distribution. Provides a picture of an aisle in an early Piggly Wiggly store in which the labels and price tags on the goods are identifiable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tedlow, Richard. New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America. New York: Basic Books, 1990. Chapter 4 focuses on the rise and fall of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. An insightful analysis of food distribution from the late nineteenth century through the 1950’s. Discusses Piggly Wiggly and the impact of the supermarket on the market strategies of A&P.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimmerman, M. M. The Supermarket: A Revolution in Distribution. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955. Succinct and effective description of grocery store practices through the early 1950’s. Particularly insightful on the early history of the supermarket, including Piggly Wiggly. As editor and publisher of the trade journal Super Market Merchandising, the author brings the perspective and knowledge of an insider.

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