‘A very clean and most ingenious way of serving the public and doing business’
(Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, following a visit to Sainsbury’s Harlow store in 1959)
The American example
In 1949 Alan Sainsbury and fellow Sainsbury’s director Fred Salisbury visited the United States as part of a Ministry of Food drive to promote improvements in food retailing methods. They originally went to look at the display and sale of frozen foods but came away impressed by the concept of supermarkets, which at the time did not exist in Britain.
Self-service stores in America had originated during the depression years, when warehouses were converted to sell packaged groceries with minimal customer service, and had since developed into a highly efficient method of retailing.
However, shopping patterns in America were very different to those in postwar Britain. In 1950, 59 per cent of American households owned a car compared to 12 per cent in Britain. American shoppers travelled by car to do their weekly shop at large edge-of-town supermarkets, while British customers shopped frequently for small amounts in high street stores. Some critics believed that self-service would never take off in Britain. Later Alan Sainsbury remarked ‘How lucky we were that they were wrong!’
A new style of shopping
‘To the customer then, self-service is clean and quick, two very considerable attractions today’ (F.W. Salisbury)
The old counter service way of shopping was time-consuming and labour-intensive. Customers queued at each counter in turn and had to wait for their goods to be weighed, cut and wrapped to order. Self-service shops moved the wrapping and weighing of goods from the front of the shop to the back rooms. At first, the staff and equipment required to package goods proved expensive, but gradually costs were reduced as manufacturers began to package their goods before sending them to Sainsbury’s.
Customer selected their goods from specially designed display shelving units and put them in a wire basket, then paid for everything at once at the checkout. One of the few criticisms of the new self-service supermarket was that ‘it’s the easiest way in the world of spending too much money. It’s such fun to pop things in the basket yourself that you forget you have to pay on the way out!’ (Home News magazine)
However, until rationing ended, some items such as margarine and cheese were still served at a counter in order to control how much each person bought.
The Croydon experiment
Sainsbury’s was not the first shop to introduce the idea of self-service to the UK, but it became the first to specifically design shops to operate this way.
A few retailers, notably the London Co-operative Society, had previously re-arranged fittings to provide a limited range of self-service groceries. In 1950, Alan Sainsbury ordered the complete refurbishment of the store at 9-11 London Road, Croydon, which had previously been used by John James Sainsbury as a model store for the suburbs when it was opened in 1882.
With a floor area of 3,300 square feet, this was one of the few Sainsbury’s stores suitable for conversion to self-service. Post-war building controls were strict and the store was refurbished under one of 100 licenses granted by the Ministry of Food to retailers who were prepared to experiment with self-service.
9-11 London Road remained open to customers during the re-fit while a range of modern features were installed which would eventually become standard in all stores.
The refurbished store opened on 26 June 1950. After years of shortages and queuing, most customers welcomed the ability to make their own choice from a larger range of goods.
Assistants were employed to help older customers adapt to the new style of shopping, but there were still a few who were less than impressed. One Croydon customer who was offered a wire basket by Alan Sainsbury threw it back at him in contempt!
New features & technical improvements
The Croydon store featured four staircases linking the shop floor to the basement preparation areas. These allowed shelves to be filled with a minimum of disturbance to customers. In later stores, 'Push-Ups' were installed, using compressed air to lift heavy goods up from the basement to the shop floor.
Perspex had been used in aircraft during the war and proved to be a light and hygienic substitute for glass. It was used extensively by Sainsbury’s in counters, lighting covers and display equipment, including a special ‘waterfall’ stand for displaying eggs.
The freestanding display shelving units known as ‘gondolas’ were designed for Sainsbury’s by John Jones of Frederick Sage & Co. They featured legs encased in stainless steel ‘sleeves’ which could be lifted up for cleaning and space for special displays at each end of the units.
Fluorescent lighting had been developed for use in wartime factories and provided improved visibility on the shop floor. At first the blue light cast by fluorescent lamps made food look unappetising. Over time colour rendering was improved and by 1957, fluorescent lighting was used to create ‘lumenated’ ceilings.
In 1949, Sainsbury’s converted part of its Selsdon store in Croydon into a laboratory for the design of new refrigeration techniques. Sainsbury’s innovations included open-topped refrigerated cabinets to chill perishable foods and patented air-cooled counters (which allowed perishable foods to be kept chilled under a Perspex canopy), as well as cold preparation rooms.
New lighting, mechanical equipment and refrigerators meant that the new self-service shops required a great deal of power. Fire regulations also required that banks of batteries be set up in the store basements for emergency power.
Increasing the number of self-service stores was a slow process. Post-war building restrictions meant that permission was usually only available to rebuild on bomb sites. These sites were often too small to be ideal, but stores were re-built with the new emphasis on technology and cleanliness.
The East Grinstead store featured prefabricated chilled counters and air-conditioned preparation rooms. Local residents were offered ‘behind the scenes’ tours and when the shop opened on 18 September 1951 the press described it as ‘the most modern hygienic food shop in the South of England, and possibly in the whole country’.
New self-service stores were also built on the London County Council (LCC) estates at Grange Hill and Debden in Essex. By December 1955, Sainsbury’s had 11 self-service branches. By the end of 1959, a further 15 self-service branches had opened, including four in the new towns of Hemel Hempstead, Crawley, Harlow and Stevenage.
In 1955 the largest self-service shop in Europe was opened by Sainsbury’s in Lewisham. The store had a sales area of 7,500 square feet and a glass-walled ventilated room for cutting and wrapping butter. Lewisham also boasted Sainsbury’s first ‘produce’ department, which sold fresh apples, oranges, bananas, grapefruits, grapes, lemons and potatoes along with the existing range of salad vegetables.
Evolution of the supermarket
Sainsbury’s first priority in store development was to replace its old counter service shops. The original shop at 173 Drury Lane had become dangerously overcrowded and was replaced in November 1958 by a new self-service branch.
Larger shops were built to accommodate new product ranges, checkouts, refrigerator and freezer units, bigger displays and increased customer numbers. Where replacement was not possible shops were brought up to modern standards, with improvements such as new shop fronts and refrigerated displays.
Sainsbury’s high street shops tended to be long and narrow, with insufficient frontage width for checkouts. Lack of space meant that some shops such as those at New Malden and Wood Green were only partially converted to grocery ‘self-selection’, while adjoining premises were used for meat and provisions counter service.
In 1962, Tony de Angeli, news editor of 'The Grocer', estimated that the 9,000 self-service shops operating in Britain accounted for about a quarter of the food sold by the nation’s 140,000 food shops. Sainsbury’s rate of conversion was slower than its competitors, but well ahead in terms of both turnover and size of new stores. By 1960 only 10 per cent of Sainsbury’s shops had been converted to self-service. By the end of the decade this figure had risen to almost 50 per cent. During the same period sales increased two and half times and profits before tax almost doubled.