It was 1869 when John James Sainsbury and his wife Mary Ann opened the first Sainsbury's store on London's Drury Lane. The business didn't take long to flourish, proving popular with locals due to the high quality yet affordable goods on offer.
By 1881, three more stores were opened to help cater for the growing demand. In 1882, they opened their first shop outside of London, in Croydon and it quickly became Sainsbury's flagship store.
John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury open Sainsbury's first dairy shop at 173 Drury Lane, London.1869
When John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury moved into Drury Lane in 1869 there were more than two hundred shops in the street, around a quarter of which sold food. When it first opened the shop only sold three items; milk, eggs and butter. Drury Lane was described by a journalist of the time as: ‘an honest, hardworking and thrifty thoroughfare... but between the churches of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St Clement Dane's an amazing amount of beggary, destitution, profligacy, vice and downright villainy hides its many-headed misery.’ 173 Drury Lane had five floors which included the shop, an attic and a basement where the food for the shop was stored. The Sainsbury family shared the living quarters with three other families. John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury aimed to have 'the best butter in London'. Rising standards of living in the capital meant that there was an increased demand for quality food. Milk consumption was on the increase due to the growing popularity and affordability of tea. The Sainsbury’s sold 'Railway Milk' which was supplied daily from the farms of Devon, Dorset and East Anglia by specialist milk trains. The Sainsburys' style of trading proved popular with customers and in 1873 they were able to open a second shop at 159 Queen's Crescent, Kentish Town.
Second shop opened at 159 Queens Crescent, Kentish Town.1873
In 1873 the Sainsbury family moved to live above their new shop at 159 Queens Crescent. To open a second shop just four years after starting their business was a remarkable achievement. Queen's Crescent was far less impoverished than Drury Lane. Kentish Town was located on the edge of a new area of suburban development and John Benjamin Sainsbury recalled that it ‘served a big distance as far out as Hendon’. Like Drury Lane, the second shop was a small dairy, selling eggs, milk, butter and cheese. A customer recalled that it was possible to buy milk when the shop was closed from a slot machine outside, known as a 'mechanical cow'. The shop did well and John James opened another branch in 1875 at 151 Queen's Crescent. This new shop specialised in ham and bacon, imported from Ireland and Denmark. Trade continued to grow and in 1884, a third branch was added at number 98. Each of the Queen’s Crescent shops was relatively small and so, as in Drury Lane, Sainsbury’s traded from both the open windows of the shops and from trestle tables outside. There was rivalry for trade, both with market traders and between the three Sainsbury’s shops, which were known locally as ‘upper Sains’, ‘middle Sains’ and ‘lower Sains’.
First depot and bacon stoves at Allcroft Road, Kentish Town, producing Sainsbury's own brand bacons and hams were established.1882
In 1882, John James Sainsbury established the company's first depot at 90 Allcroft Road, near his Kentish Town shops. This 'Wholesale Depot' provided warehouse space for butter, cheese and eggs, stables for the delivery horses, office space and accommodation for a resident foreman. The site was later extended to include bacon-smoking stoves. The bacon smoked here was the first product to be produced by Sainsbury's and was sold as 'Sainsbury brand'.
First suburban branch at 9/11 London Road, Croydon, selling 'high class provisions' opened.1882
In 1882 John James Sainsbury bought a shop at 9 (later 11) London Road, Croydon and converted it into a showpiece branch. Croydon was rapidly becoming the largest suburban town in the London area, with a population of 78,947 in 1881. Sainsbury’s new shop was opposite West Croydon station. Great care was taken with the decoration of the shop - John James personally selected the tiles for the walls and counters and mosaics for the floor, in fashionable shades of brown and green. The counter tops were made of Italian marble. At the far end of the shop a mahogany screen formed a partition between the sales and office areas. The windows were decorated with stained glass spandrels depicting game birds and hares, while upon the rich marbled granite shop front were carved the words 'Daily Arrivals of Pure Butter'. Above this, in even larger gilded letters was the name 'J.Sainsbury'. Many rivals thought John James had been too lavish in fitting out the new shop, but the decorations were practical and hygienic as well as attractive. His son John Benjamin later recalled that: ‘The critics missed the point my father had in mind, and that was to produce a shop to ensure perfect cleanliness and freedom from the menace of all food shops in those days - mice and rats.’ Customers at Croydon could choose from a much greater range of products than in any previous Sainsbury’s shop. A well as a wide range of cooked meats and poultry and game in season, Sainsbury’s claimed to be ‘the only house in Surrey’ to stock so many cheeses, including Bondons, York Creams and Alpine Creams. The model store was successful and further branches were soon opened in Croydon, including a pork butchers at 18 (later 35) London Road. This was the first branch to sell Sainsbury’s own-brand sausages.
New headquarters, depot and factory established at 11 Stamford Street, Blackfriars.1890
By 1890, the north London depot had grown outdated and inconvenient for serving the growing network of branches across the capital. John James Sainsbury acquired a new site at Stamford Street and Bennett Street at Blackfriars. The new head office and warehouse was in an ideal location for the Thames wharves, wholesale markets and main railway terminals. The location, alongside the area known as 'London's Larder' elevated John James' status to that of 'provision merchant and agent'. The more central location of Blackfriars meant that locations to the south and east of London were far more accessible, and contributed to Sainsbury's dramatic expansion between 1890 and 1900. More warehouse space was soon needed and so Stamford House was built in 1912-13.
Lloyd Maunder of Tiverton, Sainsbury's longest serving supplier, began supplying butter, eggs, rabbits, pig meat and paultry.1898
The long relationship between Lloyd Maunder Ltd and Sainsbury's began by chance in 1898. A local miller at Witheridge in North Devon had occasionally supplied Sainsbury's with poultry, but was unable to supply the large quantities requested. Seeing the potential for business links in London, Lloyd met with Arthur Sainsbury and came to an agreement that he would supply Sainsbury's regularly with poultry, butter, eggs, rabbits and pig meat. Lloyd Maunder referred to Sainsbury's as 'A1', so that rivals would not discover the secret of his success. His products were so popular with Sainsbury's customers that he soon began to buy additional supplies from other farmers. These would be collected by pony and trap and sent by rail to London. This supported the depressed West Country farming industry, by providing a guaranteed market for farmers who produced only small quantities of eggs, butter and poultry. In 1912, in response to growing demand, Lloyd Maunder set up an abattoir at Willan, near Tiverton. The goods, which later included beef and mutton, were referred to by Sainsbury's as 'produce from our own farms', even though the company never had a direct link in Lloyd Maunder's business. However, the good relationship between Lloyd Maunder and Sainsbury's extended beyond business. John Benjamin Sainsbury told Lloyd Maunder 'if you can't make friends as well as money in business, it's not worth going on'. Lloyd Maunder Ltd continues to supply Sainsbury's and In 2004, the company developed a new breed of chicken, the Devonshire White, which became the first Sainsbury's product to receive RSPCA 'Freedom Food' certification."
As the First World War broke out in 1914, Sainsbury’s began actively recruiting for female colleagues to solve the colleague shortage. By 1918, Sainsbury’s employed 39 female branch managers. War raged on so the government was forced to introduce rationing on sugar in 1917. By 1918 this had expanded to butter, margarine and various other products.
It wasn’t until 1921 that food became free of restrictions and Sainsbury’s was once again able to drive the cost of goods down for customers throughout the 1920s and 1930s before war (and rationing) struck once again in 1939.
First store outside of London at Redhill, opened.1900
The end of the nineteenth century saw a huge growth in the population of London - Greater London doubled in size between 1861 and 1911. Sainsbury’s kept on top of the urban sprawl that was eclipsing the regions outside of London, seeking out up-and-coming locations further afield. In 1899 the ‘market field’ at Redhill was acquired by Sainsbury’s at a quarterly ground rent of £18. The shop was the first to be classified by Sainsbury’s as a ‘country’ branch, marking the beginning of a new phase. During the following decade branches were opened in other provincial towns such as Brighton, Eastbourne, Guildford, Folkestone, Tunbridge Wells and Oxford.
Sainsbury’s Red Label tea introduced into Sainsbury's product range becoming an instant favourite1903
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 1903. 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. It is still supplied by the same company (now known as Finlays) and was licensed to carry the Fairtrade mark in October 2007.
First female sales assistants recruited to help with staff shortages during the First World War1915
The majority of Sainsbury’s shop staff were young men aged between 18 and 25. When the First World War broke out, these men enlisted to join the army. Faced with a depleted workforce, Sainsbury’s began to recruit saleswomen. The female recruits were initially given simple tasks such as packaging groceries and ‘making oneself generally useful’. Rings, jewellery and loose hair were forbidden but unlike their male counterparts, saleswomen were provided with chairs. A new training school for female staff was established at Sainsbury’s headquarters in Blackfriars, London. The fortnight’s ‘off-the-job’ training that new saleswomen received became very important, as by 1915, some stores were entirely composed of female staff and boys who were too young to fight. By the end of the war there were 39 female branch managers, many of whom were the wives or sisters of former managers. A few of these women retained senior positions after the war, but most were either paid off or demoted. Sainsbury’s expanded rapidly during the 1920s and 30s and in 1920 new grocery departments were opened in many shops. These changes offered new jobs for unmarried women. Apart from domestic staff, women had to leave their jobs when they got married and were paid a lump sum ‘dowry’. Wages for women were much lower than for men: in 1920 Junior Male Assistants aged 20 received 40 shillings a week, while their female equivalents were paid 23 shillings.
John Benjamin Sainsbury joins his father John James as a partner of the company1915
The founders’ eldest son John Benjamin was born above the Drury Lane shop and from an early age was trained to take over from his father at the head of the firm. He later recalled: ‘I remember wearing a small white apron (made especially for me by my mother) to fill the position of Egg Boy in the shop on Saturdays. How proud I was to be able to bank out of my wage of one shilling and sixpence [7.5p] for services rendered!’ ‘Mr John’ as he became known was the keenest of the brothers and took on a range of responsibilities within Sainsbury’s: the bacon and ham departments and the buying of lamb and Ostend rabbits, the development of new shops and the maintenance of existing ones, recruiting staff and managing vehicles and stables. John Benjamin maintained high standards and received weekly reports on each branch from a network of inspectors. Sainsbury’s Branch Management department changed its name to the Shop Services department overnight after Mr John pointed out that he was the branch management department. Even during the uncertain times of rapidly rising prices at the outbreak of war in 1914 he insisted that all food be clearly labelled. He also played a key role in Sainsbury’s expansion during the 1920s and 1930s, visiting potential new store sites with his family at weekends and conducting his own market research. John Benjamin ran the business in partnership with his father from 1915, and became a director in 1922 and chairman in 1928. He died in office in 1956.
Staff training school established at Blackfriars1915
A training school was set up in Blackfriars in 1915, originally to train female employees in wartime. It proved so successful that other retailers began to advertise for ‘Sainsbury-trained men’. ‘Learners’ attended a fortnight’s course at the school, which included practical instruction on the art of testing eggs by candling, cutting bacon into 15 different thicknesses, balancing the scales and dividing butter from a block into half-pound packs using ‘The Sainsbury method of Wiring’. Training also included tours of the bacon stoves and the cooked meats factory, and lectures on the origins of products such as New Zealand lamb and Dutch butter. Following training, staff spent a day at a London branch before moving into their allocated branch. Every department had its particular skill which took months of practice to learn and progress was recorded on an ‘experience card’.
Grocery departments introduced into larger shops and new branches as standard1920
Groceries soon became an integral part of Sainsbury's business and from 1920 expanded grocery departments were opened in many branches. Many grocery lines were Sainsbury brand goods. By 1938, the 'Selsa' sub-brand was used for over 80 products, including spices, fruit squashes, tinned soup and blancmange powder.
Expansion into the Midlands, with the acquisition of the Thoroughgoods chain1936
Sainsbury’s first developed a connection with the Midlands in 1936 with the purchase of the Thoroughgoods chain, founded by Alfred Banton, who had started out as an employee of John James Sainsbury. Banton’s chain of shops in the Midlands passed to his sons on his retirement, but when the business went bankrupt, Sainsbury’s acquired most of the shops. The shops furthest from Sainsbury’s Blackfriars depot were subsequently sold, but nine branches were retained - in Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry, Kettering, Walsall and Northampton.
Alan Sainsbury becomes joint Director of Sainsbury's with his brother Robert Sainsbury1938
Alan Sainsbury, first son of John Benjamin and grandson of founder John James joined the company in 1921 aged 17. He began his career working alongside his uncles as a buyer. This was a very important job that at this stage was only held by Sainsbury family members. He became experienced in all areas of the business, spending time in branches and using his skills as a trained accountant. He became a director of the company in 1933 and Joint General Manager with his brother Robert in 1938. In 1956 he became Chairman and then the company President in 1967. Alan Sainsbury was created Baron Sainsbury of Drury Lane in 1962. Robert Sainsbury was the second son of John Benjamin and also took an active role in the firm. He joined the company in 1930 and became a director in 1934. Together with his brother Alan, Robert was Joint General Manager, looking after the accounts, personnel and administration side of the company from 1938. He became Chairman in 1967 and then President in 1969. Robert Sainsbury was knighted in 1967
The British Shopping Revolution1940-1969
In 1950, Sainsbury’s opened their first self-service on London Road, Croydon. This meant the transition from stores whereby colleagues fetched all the items a customer needed, to the modern method we see in stores today of customers browsing aisles and selecting their own products.
As self-service stores became more common, Sainsbury’s was able to produce and sell more of its own-brand goods. In 1969, Sainsbury’s own-brand products accounted for over 50 per cent of its turnover.
Introduction of ‘Fair Shares’ scheme to ensure that non-rationed goods in short supply were distributed fairly.1940
Sainsbury's introduced a 'Fair Shares' scheme to ensure that goods in short supply - such as sausages, cake, meat pies, blancmanges and custard powder - were distributed evenly. Customers were allocated a number of points, according to the number of rationed goods for which they were registered. The scheme encouraged customers to register for all rationed goods at Sainsbury's. To promote the use of the points system a series of advertisements were created (by Francis Meynell who also produced the governments ‘Food facts’ advertisements), suggesting meal ideas using ‘points’ foods. The scheme was noted by the Ministry of Food. On 1 December 1941 the government introduced its own ‘points’ scheme covering a wide range of grocery lines.
As registration committed a customer to using a particular shop, Sainsbury's was anxious to obtain as many registrations as possible. However, staff were instructed not to 'tout' for registrations. Instead they were told to rely on Sainsbury's reputation for quality and hygiene. The paperwork involved in each registration was complex. Separate counterfoils had to be detached from the customer's ration book for every member of each family. These had to be checked, sorted into alphabetical order, collated and dispatched to the local food office.
Sainsbury’s halved paper labels on cans to save paper to help the war effort1944
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.
9/11 London Road, Croydon branch converted to self-service shopping1950
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 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 companies who were prepared to experiment with self-service retailing. 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 26th June 1950. After years of shortages and queuing, 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!
An in-house designer, Leonard Beaumont is appointed to create a unified look and own brand product packaging suitable for self-service stores1950
Beaumont 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.
Sainsbury's opens the largest self-service food store in Europe at Lewisham, selling bread and fresh produce for the first time.1955
The store had a sales area of 7,500 square feet and a glass-walled ventilated room for cutting and wrapping butter and other goods.
Sainsbury's first TV advertisement, promoting frozen chicken as an inexpensive family meal.1958
Jim Woods, who was merchandising manager recalled that "We did the filming at the Putney branch, and every time we started recording, one of us had to dash outside to stop the traffic because of the noise. The actress who played the customer had to take her shoes off, because they made a noise on our mosaic floor, and I carved the chicken myself!"
First permanent depot outside London, at Buntingford, Hertfordshire, distributing 500 non-perishable grocery lines.1960
Buntingford opened in 1960, supplying 500 non-perishable grocery lines and 'stores goods' such as paper bags to branches in East Anglia and North London. The Blackfriars depot continued to supply all perishable goods, but the new depot paved the way for the establishment of a network of regional distribution centres. New methods of working were also introduced: a new order assembly system and the non-perishable nature of the goods meant that daily deliveries and night working were no longer required. Buntingford provided a basic warehouse operation, where non-perishable goods were assembled and dispatched. Between 1965 and 67, it was entirely redeveloped to bring it into line with Sainsbury's newest depot at Basingstoke. Like Basingstoke, Buntingford was provided with a chilled warehouse for perishable foods. It was also equipped with the latest facilities for frozen foods - an area of the market that was expected to expand in future. These new facilities at Buntingford played an important role in Sainsbury's expansion into the Midlands during the 1960s.
EMIDEC1100 computer installed at Stamford House, making Sainsbury’s the first food retailer to computerise the distribution of goods to its stores.1961
The computer was so complex that it had been necessary to order it two years in advance - it took over the stock control of non-perishable lines, which had previously been performed by the mechanised Power Samas punched card system.
Introduction of non-food products such as washing powder and shampoo at larger self-service supermarkets.1961
Non-food products were first sold at Sainsbury's Chichester branch in 1961. The range, which was only available at larger stores, included washing powder, toilet paper, soaps, shampoos and cleaning products. Household items such as buckets, brushes and cooking utensils were added from 1963.
Sainsbury’s launch a general interest magazine, ‘Family’, a quarterly publication which it claimed was 'the first store-to-customer magazine in this country'1961
Between 1961 and 1964 Sainsbury's published Family magazine. This was replaced by a supplement, Sainsbury's Family Supplement, in a new monthly magazine called Family Circle which was first published in October 1964. Although Family Circle was sold in other shops, the supplement was only available to Sainsbury's customers. Sainsbury's continued to publish a supplement in the magazine until 1986.
Sainsbury’s Design Studio, led by Peter Dixon, wins Royal Society of Arts Presidential Award for Design Management, the first of its kind to be awarded in the supermarket industry.1967
After the retirement of Leonard Beaumont 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.
In was in this period that Sainsbury's established itself as a truly national retailer, first opening stores in Yorkshire and the north and then expanding to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Sainsbury’s was floated on the stock exchange in 1973 and continued to innovate into the 80s and 90s, introducing carrier bags made from recycled material and was one of the first to sell Fairtrade products.
Sainsbury’s opens a ‘decimal’ shop in Croydon to introduce customers to decimal currency, a year before ‘D-Day’1970
The Decimal Shop provided a training for key branch staff to prepare them for the changeover in 1971. This changeover period was a difficult one for our customers and the training of branch staff in handling the new currency helped to iron out difficulties. Every branch had its own decimalisation officer who received training and experience at the Croydon shop.
Doncaster branch opened its doors in October 1974. It was Sainsbury’s most northerly branch and the first in Yorkshire.1974
It was described by Sainsbury’s staff magazine JS Journal as ‘introducing Sainsbury’s southern charms into black pudding country’. The store was bigger than many Sainsbury’s branches, with a large sales area and 20 twin-bay checkouts. Many of the staff on the shop floor were new recruits to the ‘Sainsbury family’; some had never heard of Sainsbury’s before.Doncaster was quickly followed by other northerly branches in Sheffield (1975) and Northwich (1979).
First Welsh branch opens in Cwmbran1976
The first Welsh Sainsbury’s store opened in Cwmbran shopping precinct on 30th November 1976, with a full range of food, health and beauty, kitchenware, stationery and homeware products on offer. There were huge crowds of shoppers for the opening and the first week’s takings exceeded company expectations by 80%. The new store proved attractive to shoppers from a wide area. Cwmbran’s new shopping centre with other big name stores and ample free parking drew in customers from Cardiff and Newport who disliked city centre shopping. Regional specialities were not ignored: the store stocked locally sourced and slaughtered fresh Welsh lamb in its chilled cabinets. The instore bakery (which was Sainsbury’s fourth) produced fresh bread pudding from a local recipe. Store manager Elwyn Davis recruited mostly local staff, and summed up the opening of the store as ‘Bendigedig’, which he translated for non Welsh speakers as ‘Wonderful, great, excellent all rolled into one’.
First Scottish branch opens in Darnley, Glasgow1992
The first Sainsbury's supermarket opened in Darnley, Glasgow, in March 1992. The Darnley store was opened by JD Sainsbury and celebrated with a cake iced by Jane Asher. The previous month, a time capsule had been buried at the store to commemorate the landmark branch in Sainsbury’s history. Children from local schools Darnley Primary and Eastwood High School put forward ideas for the capsule’s content which included a Sainsbury’s receipt, new products and ten copies of the staff magazine ‘JS Journal’. Links were quickly forged between the store and local community, including work with schools and charity fundraising. Sainsbury’s also donated equipment to the Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital and the Royal Hospital for Sick Children.
First store in Northern Ireland opens at Ballymena1996
Ballymena was the first store in Northern Ireland, opening on 3 December 1996. The store was built on the site of the former gas works and created 300 new jobs for the area. Making the most of the December opening date, local children sang Christmas carols and helped David Sainsbury pull a giant Christmas cracker. The store contained around 900 locally sourced product lines, such as Food Flair shortbread and included fishmonger, butcher, bakery and delicatessen counters, as well as a restaurant and petrol station. Ballymena was also the only Sainsbury’s store to contain a branch of a bank, First Trust.