On This Day: 'Revolution' as world's first self-service supermarket launches

·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK

It seems bizarre now, but the basic concept of a supermarket – customers browsing the aisles and picking which goods they want to buy – was an innovative one 105 years ago.

On 6 September, 1916, the first branch of Piggly Wiggly launched in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s said to be the world’s first self-service supermarket.

An archive image of a Piggly Wiggly store, circa 1918. The chain opened the first self-service supermarket in September 1916. (Getty Images)
An archive image of a Piggly Wiggly store, circa 1918. The chain opened the first self-service supermarket in September 1916. (Getty Images)

Founded by entrepreneur Clarence Saunders, this single store "revolutionised" the grocery industry forever.

Its impact is seen as so significant that there's even a commemorative plaque, which stands in Memphis today, marking its opening.

MEMPHIS - OCTOBER 04:  Piggly Wiggly Building site historical marker in Memphis, Tennessee on October 4, 2016.  (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
The first side of the plaque marking the 1916 opening of the first Piggly Wiggly store. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
MEMPHIS - OCTOBER 04:  Piggly Wiggly Building site historical marker in Memphis, Tennessee on October 4, 2016.  (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
The second side of the plaque marking the 1916 opening of the first Piggly Wiggly store. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

The previously accepted form of grocery shopping would see a customer presenting their order to a clerk, who would then fetch the goods and tot up the bill as the customer watched on.

The commemorative plaque describes in endearing detail how the new, groundbreaking form of shopping worked at the first Piggly Wiggly store.

“Customers entered through a turnstile, filled their own baskets as they walked through a maze of shelves containing hundreds of products, and had their bills figured by clerks with adding machines.

“Saunders received patents for many of his innovative designs.”

The opening of the store was also marked with a “brass band, beauty contest, flowers for the ladies and balloons for the children”.

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

The new concept was a popular one, with Piggly Wiggly having opened 200 stories in 40 states by 1921.

They had combined sales of $60m, which according to US inflation calculators is worth $915m (£663m) in today’s terms. The chain is still operating in the US to this day.

While Saunders’ innovation left a permanent mark on the global grocery industry, that's not to say the impact was immediate.

According to MoneyWeek, it was still another 32 years before the UK’s first self-service supermarket opened in the East End of London in 1948.

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