These days Piggly Wiggly, the Southern grocery store with the funny name, is where we love to buy our 75-cent sodas and picnic-ready pimento sandwiches. Back in the day, though, when Piggly Wiggly first opened its doors, it sparked a revolution in grocery shopping that forever changed the way we buy food.
The modern grocery-buying experience is all thanks to Clarence Saunders, a Virginia native with a dream. Saunders wanted to change the way people grocery shopped, but he ended up completely changing every type of retail and his impact is still being felt today.
It’s hard to imagine now, but no one had ever thought of self-service grocery shopping before Saunders opened his first Piggly Wiggly at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 6, 1916. Before Saunders came along, when you needed groceries, you would head to a store, and hand your shopping list over to a clerk. The clerk would then fill a shopping bag and customers would simply smile and pay—no impulse shopping, no perusing through the aisles looking for dinner inspiration, no picking the perfect cantaloupe. Piggly Wiggly did away with that model entirely. Saunders reinvented stores, putting groceries out on shelves for shoppers to see. They could browse as long as they like, greet neighbors in the aisles, and pick their own bananas, milk, and loaves of bread. According to the store's history, Piggly Wiggly not only was the first modern supermarket, but also came up with ideas that were completely innovative at the time, but are now old hat. Thing like grocery carts, and “price-marked items, employees in uniform, and the supermarket franchise model.”
Of course, Saunders had no idea that he was about to start a grocery revolution. Like many new business owners hoping to lure customers to his store’s grand opening, Saunders came up with a few attention-grabbing ideas. He put up billboards and took out newspaper ads promising that every customer at his funny-named store would “be her own clerk.” According to the Tennessee Historical Quarterly (via Smithsonian), Saunders promised to hold a “beauty contest” at the opening, but then had the judges hand out $5 and $10 bills to everyone woman who walked in the store. Clever, right? They also handed out flowers and balloons to children and had a brass band serenading visitors. All the to-do was unnecessary, though, because Saunders self-service store was a hit. Turns out that people liked picking their own groceries and presenting them to the clerk for tallying up on a register.
Once Saunders realized his idea was a success, he patented the idea and started to expand the store adding nine stores before the end of his first year. According to Piggly Wiggly, Saunders started sell public stock in the company and soon lost control of the stores in the 1920s. The concept flourished, though, and The Pig, as it came to be known, grew and grew as customers learned to love shopping for themselves. By the 1930s, some 2,500 Piggly Wiggly stores were spread out across the South and the Midwest.
While Piggly Wiggly has shrunk a bit from its heyday, Saunders’ dream of a fully-automated grocery store is still revolutionary. Stores like CVS and some Kroger’s now let people scan and check-out on their own without even making friendly chit chat with the cashier. Amazon is taking Saunders’ idea one step further and letting customers shop and simply walk out the door of their Amazon Go stores with no scanning and no cashier required. The future of shopping is exciting—and it all started in the South with one clever idea.