The first self-serve grocery store: the Piggly Wiggly

Old timey photograph of a grocery store

Have you ever wondered when the first real grocery store appeared? No? Well, we're going to tell you about it anyway. It's a bit of a strange tale, so strap in.

Setting the Stage

If you were to take a look at a list of significant happenings in the year 1916, it would read like a horror novel. It was the middle of World War I, and everybody on the planet was anxiously watching the battles tear across Europe. Nothing was certain, not even the sunrise.

On February 21, The Battle of Verdun began with a German offensive. The battle would go on to last 9 months, and around 1 million soldiers would die before its conclusion.

On June 6, Yuan Shikai, ruler of China, died and caused a virtual collapse of the nation's central government under pressure from warlords and political reformers.

On July 1, The Battle of the Somme began. Britain suffered 19,240 casualties in a single day. The battle went on until November.

On September 15, tanks were used in combat for the first time ever. Two days later, The Red Baron won his first aerial combat in France.

It was a tumultuous year, to say the least. But any good 1916 calendar will also show you something amazing that happened on September 6. The first true supermarket opened its doors to the public in Memphis, Tennessee. It was called Piggly Wiggly, and it changed the world for the better.

Piggly Wiggly Takes Over the World (of Groceries)

Icon of a bag filled with groceries

The idea for Piggly Wiggly came to its founder, Clarence Saunders, in a dream. He woke up and immediately started making sketches of what he had seen. The first store was built based on these plans, and it included some revolutionary features that Saunders patented.

To get into the store, customers had to use a turnstile, which Saunders had patented. This was to ensure that only paying customers entered the store.

The store was organized so that customers could walk around it in a circle, and all of the shelves were placed at an angle so that they could be easily seen and reached.

There were also clerks stationed throughout the store to help customers find what they were looking for. But the most revolutionary feature of Piggly Wiggly was the self-serve checkout system.

Up until this point, all grocery stores were operated as general stores. This meant that customers would give their order to a clerk, who would then go and retrieve the items from the shelves.

Piggly Wiggly changed all of that by allowing customers to pick out their own items and take them to the checkout counter to be rung up. This was a completely new concept, and it caught on like wildfire.

By 1922, there were 1,200 Piggly Wiggly stores across the country. And the company's success continued into the postwar era. In 1955, Saunders sold the company for $22 million.

The Piggly Wiggly legacy continues to this day. The company is still in operation, and there are currently over 600 stores across the United States.

Opening Day at Piggly Wiggly

Clarence Saunders was a bit of an eccentric iconoclast. He was known for his strange behavior and outlandish ideas. So it's no surprise that the opening day of Piggly Wiggly was a bit... unusual.

To promote the store, Saunders took out a full-page ad in the local paper in which he advertised that he would hold a "beauty contest" for anybody who came on opening day. Not only did he deliver on that promise, but he also delivered so much more.

There was a brass band serenading guests in the lobby. Saunders himself was at the door handing out flowers and balloons to children. Newspaper reporters, posing as beauty contest judges, gave $5 and $10 gold coins to every woman who entered until the coins were gone.

It was festive, to say the least, and maybe a little outlandish. But Saunders was an outlandish guy, so it worked.

A few months after that grandest of openings, Saunders was quoted as saying “One day Memphis shall be proud of Piggly Wiggly… And it shall be said by all men… That the Piggly Wigglies shall multiply and replenish the earth with more and cleaner things to eat.”

Did he know that he was changing the way we shop for food? Was he even aware that his idea for a self-serve grocery store chain would one day become the standard for shopping? We're guessing he did.

Caboodle Is Also Changing the Way We Shop for Groceries

While self-serve grocery stores are still definitely a thing, we at Caboodle think it's time for another shakeup. That's why we're creating a grocery delivery service that's affordable and accessible for everybody.

We're a startup in Pittsburgh, PA with the vision to make grocery delivery simple and accessible for everybody. We think that getting a week's worth of groceries shouldn't have to be a stressful experience that leaves you pulling your hair out and throwing nervous looks at your quickly depleting grocery budget.

If you’re somebody who lives in Pittsburgh and you like the idea of having your groceries delivered, then we invite you to download our app today.

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