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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Re-building the Brand2000-2018
Sainsbury’s saw in the millennium with a total of 432 stores across the UK and more ways to make the shopping experience easier.
In 2004 Sainsbury’s began working with the Woodland Trust and has planted nearly two million trees since. A year later, Sainsbury’s were the first retailer to introduce traffic light nutritional labelling on products to give customers a better indication of the nutritional value.
By 2010, Sainsbury’s had opened the first of six food colleges – these have now trained 18,000 colleagues in traditional skills.
Opened 100th store in Scotland2017
Sainsbury's opened its 100th store in Scotland, creating 64 new local jobs. The 6,800 sq. ft store on Gordon Street in Glasgow was opened on 11th May 2017 by Keith Brown MSP (Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work) and Mike Coupe (Chief Executive, Sainsbury’s) and represents over 30 years of continuous investment and growth in the country