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Evolution of Packaging

Evolution of packaging

Packaging for fresh provisions

The early range of fresh provisions sold by Sainsbury’s was weighed and wrapped individually, and any packaging was simple. Items such as butter, cheese or sausages would be wrapped in greaseproof and brown paper and tied with string. If two types of butter were purchased, slips of paper would be inserted so that customers could tell the difference. (In later years each package of butter was labelled with its country of origin and each pack of margarine bore a greaseproof label indicating the type.) Customers would bring their own jugs for milk and sometimes their own dishes for butter. Eggs were sold loose in wicker baskets and carried home in paper bags.

When groceries were first introduced in 1903, packaging remained simple. Tea packets were made of paper with a foil lining and different coloured seals to denote different blends. Sugar was sold in thick blue paper bags, made by salesmen during quiet moments. Flour was sold in reusable cotton bags.

Packaging for pies and cooked meats was more elaborate. An order of half a pound or more of York ham would be placed in a white box with green edging and tied with a green ribbon. ‘Hand-raised’ pork pies came in boxes with designs of poppies and corn on the lid. 

Bloater paste, potted meats and jams came in earthenware jars, featuring the Sains-berry design. This pun – an S with a pattern of holly berries - was the company’s registered trademark between 1909 and 1951.

During the 1930s and 40s several brand names were used for Sainsbury’s own products. ‘Selsa’ was the brand name for a wide range of grocery goods, while ‘Crelos’ was used for margarine and ‘Basket Brand’ for tinned fruits.

Wartime - paper & ink saving labels

Before the Second World War, butter and cheese were given two layers of wrapping by the counter hand but this was reduced to one under wartime restrictions. In a wartime bulletin of 1942, customers were advised to bring their own receptacles for food as they had done during the Great War: 'It may be suggested to customers that flour bags which can be washed  and used again are better for this purpose than odd bits of paper, although an actual container is best of all'. Paper and ink shortages also led to the use of less colourful 'half-labels' on many pre-packaged products.

Sainsbury's early grocery packaging used various elaborate and colourful designs, but common styles and colours can be seen on some labels. By the 1940s, the importance of design to unify the company image was recognised. Alan Sainsbury wrote that: "Although the quality of the particular food... is what finally counts with the discerning housewife, it should be the aim of the progressive retailer to present his wares in the most attractive dress and, if he sells food, in the most hygienic manner."

Improvements were also made to the quality of the packaging. In 1946, designs for Coffee Berries and Semolina packs were chosen for display in the Printing and Packaging Section of the "Britain Can Make It" Exhibition.

Shopping bags

Before the introduction of self-service supermarkets, carrier bags were not available at Sainsbury's. Paper bags were provided for eggs and other loose items such as sugar and flour were measured into special bags. Customers would either take goods home in their own baskets, or have larger shops delivered to their homes.

When paper carriers were first introduced in the 1950s they cost 4d each, but contemporary photographs show that many customers still brought their own baskets with them. Plastic carrier bags were available from 1978. Over the years carrier bag designs have reflected Sainsbury's changing brand identity and slogans. In 1989 recycled plastic carrier bags were introduced and Sainsbury's won several environmental awards. In 1991, the company launched its 'Penny Back' scheme which gave customers a penny back every time they used an old bag. When the first environment report was produced in 1996, it showed that 80.2 million bags had been reused that year as part of the scheme. 1.5 million pennies were being refunded every week and £3 million had been raised for charity by customers donating their pennies. Various other permanent shopping bags were introduced during the 1990s including Bags For Life and special wine carriers and cool bags. In September 2006 'green generation' plastic bags were introduced, containing one third recycled material, 10% chalk and 43% less plastic.


The transition from counter service, where goods were individually weighed and wrapped, to self-service, prompted a revolution in packaging design. By the end of rationing in 1954, most foods required some kind of packaging. Many factors had to be taken into account for the design of packaging for this new style of shopping. The package had to protect its contents and withstand handling by customers. It had to be clearly labelled and identifiable from any angle. It also had to be easy to stack and to look attractive both on its own and in displays. Leonard Beaumont was appointed Sainsbury's design consultant in 1950 and created simple, consistent designs which reflected the company's reputation for quality and cleanliness. He used only one typeface (Albertus), stylised graphics and muted colours to create a clean fresh image which echoed the design of the self-service shops. Eggs had traditionally been sold loose. When they came off ration in 1953 a new 4-egg pack was introduced. However this was not stackable or robust enough so was replaced three years later with a sturdier design.

In 1950, cardboard was cheap but only two types of plastic film were available. The introduction of polythene a few years later proved very useful for packaging frozen foods as it remain flexible at very low temperatures. Cellulose film was relatively expensive, so designs were economical in its use. Boxes featured a cellulose window on one side and a half-tone image of the product on the other. Package sizes also began to change to suit self-service methods. A 1957 'JS Journal' article states: 'The 2lb jar of jam has practically vanished - to be replaced at the other end of the scale by the ½ lb size.'

The impact of self-service

The development of self-service stores provided an opportunity for Sainsbury's to expand and modernise their range of packaged products. Old own brand product names such as 'Crelos' and 'Selsa' had been discontinued during the war and were not reintroduced. New products were clearly branded with the Sainsbury name. Canned goods were important in the years before frozen food and ready meals. (Only 24% of households had a fridge in 1959). During the 1950s Sainsbury's increased its range of canned fruit and vegetables along with tinned meats such as Spam and corned beef. Canned curry was available by the early 1960s.

The new self-service stores featured 'produce' departments for the first time. Tomatoes and cucumbers were already sold alongside Sainsbury's cooked meats and cheeses, but the new Lewisham branch, opened in 1955, was the first to stock apples, citrus fruits, grapes, bananas and potatoes. Wrapped bread was also sold for the first time in self-service stores and Sainsbury's introduced its own brand New Enriched Loaf in 1964.

Another feature of the 1950s was the introduction of 'ready-to-cook' frozen chicken. New mass-production methods brought prices down and Sainsbury's advertising promoted chicken as an inexpensive family meal.


Over the last 60 years, advances in packaging technology have paralleled growth in product range, from the introduction of transparent plastic films to containers for frozen and microwavable foods. In 1962, Peter Dixon set up Sainsbury's new Design Studio. He took Sainsbury's corporate image to a new level, using bold colours and geometric patterns to create an influential 'pop art' style.

By 1976, Sainsbury's laboratories included a section devoted to packaging research, 'an unsung but vitally important activity'. In 1997, dried fruit was repackaged in resealable foil bags presenting it as a convenience food rather than a cooking ingredient. This packaging won a Design Effectiveness Award and sales of dried fruit more than doubled. Today, clear nutritional labelling is essential. Environmental concerns have led to a reduction in overall packaging and the development of recycled as well as recyclable and compostable packaging. Compostable packaging made using potato starch was introduced for fruit in 2001 and is now used for ready meals and most organic produce. March 2007 saw the launch of the first water bottle to incorporates 25% recovered waste plastic. Tomatoes are now available in FSC-certified Tetra-Pak cartons rather than tins.


In the early days, the fresh provisions sold by Sainsbury's were hand-wrapped but not usually labelled. By law, packaging must convey a great deal of information other than the name of the product it contains, including:

  • Weight or volume
  • Ingredients
  • Date
  • Storage information
  • Preparation instructions
  • Place of origin
  • Name and address of manufacturer
  • Lot or batch number


Nutritional information is not required by law unless a nutritional claim is being made about the product. Sainsbury's first product packaging to include nutritional labelling was Vitapint, a vitamin enriched low-fat milk, in 1981. In 1986 new free range egg boxes with EC colour coding and nutritional information were introduced. In 2005, Sainsbury's was the first UK retailer to launch a 'multiple traffic light' nutritional labelling system, to help customers recognise healthier food choices at a glance.

Additional food safety labelling is also provided for products such as mould-ripened cheeses which are risky for certain vulnerable groups. 'Wine selector' informative labels were introduced in 1983. Price stamps and sticky labels have now been replaced by bar codes. Colour coding is also used to distinguish between different items in a range, for example on the lids and labels of herb and spice jars. In 1913, Sainsbury's sold around 200 products; by 1960 it had increased to 2000, and today an average Sainsbury's supermarket sells 45,000 products, of which 50% are Sainsbury's own brand products.

Packaging designs also create a clear identity for each of Sainsbury's sub-brands such as Sainsbury's SO Organic and Taste the difference. Today's designs use a mixture of pictorial and stylised, graphical designs to convey information about the product.