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1916: 1st True Supermarket, the "Piggly Wiggly" is Opened by Clarence Saunders in Memphis, Tennessee


Today, you can sit on your couch, order your groceries online, and have them delivered to your home in a matter of hours. This is a huge change in the way we are used to grocery shopping, yet it was not the first revolutionary change in the grocery industry. That initial change happened in 1916 when Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly, the first true supermarket experience.

Grocery stores were once full service, with clerks filling customer orders.

Grocery Shopping with Clerks

Before 1916, grocery shoppers didn't pick up their items from store shelves as they do now. Instead, they simply walked into the store and handed over their shopping list to a store clerk. The clerk's job was to fill the order. Food and drink were not sold in neat packages. Most of the goods were in bulk barrels at stores. Grocery clerks measured and wrapped each item on the list for the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper just waited till the clerk finished his order. There was a problem with this system. It was quite expensive. To fulfill all orders, stores had to hire many grocery clerks, increasing payroll expenses.

Clarence Saunders

Who was Clarence Saunders?

Clarence Saunders was born in 1881 in Amherst County, Virginia. When he was five years old, his mother died and he became poor. As a youth, he took a job at a grocery store in Clarksville, Tennessee. There, he learned about the grocery business. He took that knowledge to his next job at a Memphis-based grocery company. The more he worked in the grocery industry, the more he became frustrated with the inefficiency of the current system.

Saunders noted inefficiencies in the new grocery industry.

A Keen Observer
Clarence Saunders was never one to stick to old traditions. He had an idea to improve efficiency, but it would require a radical change in the way people buy their food. During his time in the grocery business, Clarence Saunders observed how shoppers interacted with grocery clerks. He also looked at how other retail businesses structured their systems. He developed a completely new system, then began work to realize his ideas.

The first Piggly Wiggly introduced shoppers to the new grocery experience.

A New Way to Shop

Clarence Saunders bought a grocer at 79 Jefferson Street in Memphis and reconfigured the interior. He took out the tall counters and replaced them with shelves. He arranged the shelves as a winding aisle that would lead shoppers through the store. The aisle directed shoppers to a cashier stationed at a cash register, ready to tally the cost of groceries. At the entrance and exit, they installed turnstiles. The most surprising thing for the shopkeepers... there was no grocery clerk in the shop. It was a self-serve store. Shoppers were expected to walk along the aisle and select their purchases. It was a revolutionary concept.

Customers quickly adapted to the new concept.

Self Serve

The store was quickly profitable as labor costs were greatly reduced. He hired a man to stock the shelves. At first, customers tried to present the poor stocker with their inventory, hoping it would fill their orders. Saunders instructed them to politely explain to shoppers that they needed to pick up and collect their groceries.

Saunders liked the name rhyming.

Piggy Wiggly

Clarence Saunders named his new grocery story Piggy Wiggly. It was an unusual name. When asked to explain the story behind the name, Saunders was always quite irritable. During an interview, a reporter asked him why he chose the name Piggly Wiggly. Saunders replied, "So people would ask the same question.

Piggly Wiggly was the first true supermarket.

A Growing Chain ... and a Growing Problem

It took some adjustments, but shoppers soon embraced the new grocery shopping concept. By the end of 1916, there were nine Piggly Wiggly throughout Memphis. Today, that number was expanded to include 530 stores in 17 states. Saunders patented his grocery store design, but his business model was copied by other entrepreneurs. In his eagerness to grow his business into a nationwide empire, however, Saunders made a terrible mistake. He issued so much public stock in his Piggly Wiggly company that he lost control of his own business in the early 1920s.

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