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1916: The First True Supermarket, The Piggly Wiggly, Is Opened By Clarence Saunders In Memphis, Tennessee

1910s | September 5, 2021

View of the front of the Piggly Wiggly store located at 106 South Austin in the Austin community area, Chicago, Illinois, 1926. (Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Unless you're fancy and get yours delivered, modern grocery shopping means trawling the aisles, picking out the perfect avocado or triumphantly pulling the gallon of milk with the furthest expiration date from the back of the case. It wasn't always like that, though. The "self-service" grocery store was ushered in by Clarence Saunders in 1916 with Piggly Wiggly, the first true supermarket.

The First Piggly Wiggly

Prior to 1916, the grocery list was even more all-important than it is now. Rather than wandering around lush displays, shoppers simply handed their list to a clerk, who filled their order from bulk bins in a mysterious back room, hidden from the eyes of customers. In some ways, the Instacart era is a throwback to this system of outsourced commerce, but it was quite costly, requiring a large staff to keep up with demand. Clarence Saunders recognized this flaw, and he saw an opportunity.

Saunders was born in 1881 in Amherst County, Virginia, motherless from age five and deep in poverty. As a young man, he worked at a grocery store in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he earned the knowledge that allowed him to rise ever higher through the ranks of the grocery business. By 1916, having noted the inefficient system of interaction between grocery shoppers and clerks compared to other retail businesses, he purchased his own grocery store at 79 Jefferson Street in Memphis and completely reconfigured the interior. He pulled out the long counters and replaced them with shelves, which he arranged to form a winding aisle leading shoppers through the store and to a cashier, ready to tally their bill. On September 6, the first Piggly Wiggly was officially in business. When a reporter asked him why he had chosen the name, Saunders once answered, "So people will ask that very question."

1918 photo of the interior of the original Piggly Wiggly store, Memphis, Tennessee. (Clarence Saunders/Wikimedia Commons)

Grocery Revolution

Shoppers were initially baffled by the concept of self-service groceries. As the only visible employees were cashiers and stockers, customers often tried to present the latter with their lists only for Saunders to politely explain that they needed to select their own items. The public soon embraced the revolutionary concept, however, and by the end of 1916, eight more Piggly Wigglys had opened across Memphis.

Today, Piggly Wiggly boasts 530 stores in 17 states, and of course, Saunders's patented grocery store design has been copied by countless other entrepreneurs and adopted by the culture en masse. In his eagerness to grow his empire, however, Saunders made a dreadful mistake. He issued so much public stock in the company that he lost control of his own business in the early 1920s.

Tags: 1910s | business | firsts

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.