#50 Piggly Wiggly Self Service: What A Concept!
If you think grocery shopping is a hassle, be glad you are not a harried worker of 1916 trying to grab fixings for dinner on your way home. Then, as today, you would be jostled by hangry hordes. But a hundred years ago, everybody would be trying to avoid horse poop and mud in the walkways. You would have to dodge fast-moving horse-drawn carts, jitneys, and streetcars, as well as poorly controlled automobiles driving helter-skelter.
And then, when you tumbled off the streetcar near the markets, you would have to go to the green grocer, the baker, the butcher, and the dry goods merchant. At each locale, you would have to cram your way towards the front counter, taking several elbows in the process, and then clamor for the attention of the clerk.
The Old Way of Buying Groceries
Once you were attended by a clerk, your desired items were likely to be read from your list like a proclamation among your fellow townsfolk. Then, while you waited for the clerk to go to the back of the store to obtain your items, you might be subjected to small talk such as, "Two pounds of butter and five of sugar, is it Mrs. Brown? How do you find that new fangled diet is doing for you?" Finally, the clerk would return, wrap up the goods, tally the costs, probably write them up on your account, and you'd fight your way to the next store.
Clarence Saunders (1881-1953), an experienced Memphis grocery wholesaler, figured there had to be a better way. Saunders had already applied new-fangled efficiencies to grocery operations. He was among the first to conduct business on a cash-only basis, getting rid of the overhead of credit account management, the cost of float, and the costs of the inevitable bad accounts.
Moreover, he put together a chain of stores that used their combined purchasing power to bring down the cost of goods sold. His forte, perhaps, was print advertising, where he realized big savings by using the same ads for all stores, and getting deals on volume purchases.
His disruptive idea was to get grocery customers to serve themselves. It is hard for consumers of today to realized just how innovative was this concept. Nobody reached to take off the store shelves the items they wished to purchase. What seems like "duh" to shoppers today, required a huge cultural shift of the collective consumer mindset.
Saunders made it easy by designing and building grocery store interiors expressly to facilitate self-service shopping. Customers would enter through a turnstile on the left side of a deep, rectangular store interior. A handy arm basket would be provided. They would file down a narrow aisle lined on each side with groceries. Then back up the next aisle. The flow was uni-directional, ending at a cash register. Clerks there, would tally the items and, in another breakthrough innovation, hand the customer the tape from the adding machine.
Original Patented Piggly Wiggly Store Design
The new method was not only more efficient, but thought to be more sanitary, and more honest. You could weigh your bulk items yourself and not worry about the clerk's finger on the scale. He also devised a transparent method of posting prices -- tags were hung on hooks in front of the items and could be easily changed out. Before Saunders, grocery clerks occasionally would charge different customers different prices.