Time for a cuppa
At the turn of the twentieth century Sainsbury’s was a provision merchant specialising in dairy and fresh provisions, whereas tea was the domain of the retail’s grocer, who prepared dry often imported goods for sale, blending teas and spices and roasting and grinding coffees, often to closely guarded recipes. By the late 19th century, the exclusive image of the ‘high class grocer’ had begun to change – the abolition of import duties had made many groceries, particularly tea and sugar, affordable by many people. Thomas Lipton’s introduction of cheap ready-packed tea into his shops in 1889 had helped to break down the historic boundaries between the provision merchant’s trade and that of the grocer.
In 1903, John James Sainsbury acquired a number of shops from another chain retailer, Tom Deacock. One of these, at 12 Kingsland High Street, sold teas, sugar, coffee, cocoa, canned fish and fruit. John James decided to add these grocery products to Sainsbury's growing product range.
For Sainsbury's range of 'pure teas', John James Sainsbury enlisted the help of George Payne & Co, a tea merchant based near Tower Bridge. The founder also sent his fifth son Alfred to train with George Payne before joining Sainsbury's as grocery buyer in 1906.
Together, John James and George Payne selected different blends, identified by the coloured seals on the packets. Red Label, Blue Label and Green Label were launched at opening of the Ealing branch in March 1903. The new product line proved popular and by the end of July, sales were well of 900lbs a week. For this achievement the Ealing branch won a prize of £20 for the highest sales of any Sainsbury’s shop. In 1904 the range was extended by the introduction of two further blends: Yellow Label and Brown Label.
Red Label was the most expensive blend at 1s 6d per lb and is the oldest Sainsbury brand product still sold today. Red Label is a blend of up to 25 different teas with a good proportion of quality Kenya teas giving it a distinctive reddish liquor. It is still supplied by the same company (now known as Finlays) and was licensed to carry the Fairtrade mark in October 2007.
Tea was not rationed in the First World War since the government felt it was a luxury item. Supplies were controlled however, and some hoarding took place. JS customers were urged to register with the firm to ensure that supplies were shared out fairly according to availability and family needs.
During the 1920s, Blue Kaddy tea was introduced as 'a delicious blend for particular people'. At 2s 8d per lb, this was one of the most expensive teas sold at Sainsbury's and was not stocked in all the branches. It had a distinctive blue packet carrying an illustration of a Chinese-style caddy – this was reproduced as a Christmas gift tin containing 1lb of the tea.
During the 1930s, the advertising campaign for premium blend Blue Kaddy tea featured the pilot Amy Johnson, who had made a number of historic long-distance flights. Sainsbury’s took some credit for her skill and endurance, as it was obviously the powers of Blue Kaddy tea that helped her soar to the dizzy heights. A picture of Amy daintily sipping Blue Kaddy featured on Sainsbury’s posters, price lists for several years following her expedition.
Between 1905 and 1910, Sainsbury's gave away beautifully illustrated cards depicting various well-known fairy tales free with purchases of tea. Customers could collect them to form complete sets and fill a companion album. Sainsbury's tea is featured on every card - it revives Jack after his tumble from the beanstalk, and the prince finds time for a cup of Pure Tea on his way to wake the Sleeping Beauty.
Sainsbury’s advertising didn’t tend to be as elaborate as other companies such as Liptons – they used every possible advertising medium from hot air balloons that dropped advertising telegrams to monster cheeses which arrived at branches pulled by elephants! However, on one occasion, John James Sainsbury was goaded into making a direct response to this extravagant publicity. When Thomas Lipton was awarded a Royal Warrant, he erected signs over his shops proclaiming ‘We serve the King’. Where Sainsbury’s had branches directly opposite Lipton’s, banners were erected which read ‘God Save the Queen!’.
Sainsbury’s teas was first packaged in cartons, designed by Leonard Beaumont, in 1961. The JS Journal boasted that the new packs were ‘virtually “shakeproof”, that they did away with leakage, and that they made a handier pack for the housewife’. Tea bags were first introduced by Tetleys in 1953, and JS own label tea bags were available from 1968.