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.
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 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’.
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.
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.
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.
Sainsbury's becomes first retailer to trial Slow Shopping concept.2016
To help elderly customers and those with disabilities Sainsbury’s store in Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne has trialled a new concept called Slow Shopping. Slow Shopping is run at the store every Tuesday from 1-3pm. During this time people who want to use the service are greeted at the entrance to the store, where a Sainsbury’s colleague is on hand to assist customers with their shopping. Chairs are put out at the end of aisles to enable people who struggle to stand all the way round the shop to have a rest. The store also mans two help desks where they offer samples of favourite products such as fruit, ginger biscuits and Victoria sponge.
Achieved 'Disability Confident Leader' status2017
The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that Sainsbury’s has achieved Disability Confident Leader status – the highest tier of accreditation in the government’s Disability Confident Programme. Sainsbury’s, which employs over 190,000 colleagues, is the largest retailer to achieve this status. Awarded to organisations who take positive action to employ disabled people and encourage other employers to do the same.