“If Clarence Saunders lives long enough, Memphis will become the most beautiful city in the world just with the things Saunders built and lost.”—Ernie Pyle
Perhaps someone else would have dreamed up and built the ideas that Clarence Saunders built, but Saunders built them. If you will be shopping for tonight’s dinner at a grocery store today, you have Clarence Saunders to thank for several things you possibly take for granted: shopping for yourself at a grocery store, for one.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening of Saunders’ greatest achievement, the first ever self-service grocery store, a Piggly Wiggly (the name was his coinage and he never explained it), which is a grocery store chain that is still in business throughout the American South. The first store (a photo from inside it is above) was located at 79 Jefferson Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and a historical marker sits there to this day.
Grocery stores tended to fail as business enterprises, Saunders noticed, because the way in which customers were served cost too much in labor and time. The overhead was too high. In the typical grocery store, the customer presented a list to a clerk who then shopped for the customer and brought the items back for the customer to accept (or reject) and then purchase. Grocery stores often had more employees than customers in the building. Further, many small-time grocers failed because they extended credit to their customers for reasons of good will and repeat business.
The Piggly Wiggly was cash only, and as one can see in the photo above, taken by Saunders in 1918, the layout forced customers through the entire store until they reached the checkout counter. They walked past shelves filled with items, individually priced (another Saunders innovation), from which they could select their own groceries. The clerks largely served only one need: taking cash from the customers. Customers felt empowered. The store spent less on manpower.
The idea was immediately successful, and by 1920 there were more than 1000 Piggly Wiggly stores throughout the country and several hundred imitators.
Saunders patented the idea of a self-service grocery store in 1917. However brilliant his ideas were, Saunders had a terrible tendency to go broke, though. In 1923, he attempted to corner the market in shares of his own company’s stock, which bankrupted him. This ended his association with the grocery chain that he had started, so he opened a rival chain of grocery stores, and because he was so famous as the founder of the Piggly Wiggly stores, he was able to give this chain the clunky name of “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores.” There were 675 of these stores across the country, but this chain went bankrupt and closed during the Great Depression.
He continued his pursuit of the perfectly seamless clerk-free shopping experience for the rest of his life. He opened a chain of grocery stores that operated like giant vending machines, but at moments of peak busy-ness, the machinery tended to falter. Circuit breakers tripped, power went off. This chain, named “Keedoozle,” also went out of business in just a few years.
When he died in 1953, at the age of 72, he was working on something he called “Foodelectric.”
Almost every grocery store now in business uses his “Foodelectric” concept: plainly stated, it is the self checkout lane. Almost every restaurant uses a tool he imagined using in his “Foodelectric” stores: he envisioned handing a computer to each customer at the entrance that they could use to place orders and which would notify them when their groceries were ready to be picked up. Remember, this was 1953. At many restaurant chains nowadays, we can order refills and pay for our tabs from a screen on the table and the service staff only exists to carry food to the tables. In this, like many other things, Saunders was a half-century before his time.
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The third time was the charm. A group of English separatists, later called the Pilgrims, had arranged for two ships to bring them from Europe to the New World. One, the Speedwell, was to carry members of the group who had settled in Holland back to England, where the group would join with those who had remained in England. From there, both groups were to travel for the New World. The English Pilgrims were to sail on a ship called the Mayflower.
The two ships set off on August 5, and it was quickly discovered that the Speedwell was taking on water. The two ships returned to England. The Speedwell was patched and the two set sail once again. The same thing happened. Speedwell was sold and what was going to be a comfortable trip on two vessels was now going to be an overcrowded journey on one.
Further, starting a transatlantic journey in September was unusual, as the group would be arriving in the New World as winter approached. But this is what the Pilgrims faced. On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England with the Pilgrim Fathers as its only cargo.
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Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley in front of a large crowd on this date in 1901; McKinley died eight days later.
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Cal Ripken Jr played in his 2131st consecutive major league baseball game, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record, 21 years ago today.
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Margaret Sanger died 50 years ago today. Madeleine L’Engle died on this date in 2007. Luciano Pavarotti died on this date in 2007.
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Robert M. Pirsig is 88. Representative Sander Levin is 85. Jo Anne Worley is 79. David Allan Coe is 77. Roger Waters is 73. Swoosie Kurtz is 72. Jane Curtin is 69. Jeff Foxworthy is 58. Michael Winslow is 58. Elizabeth Vargasis 54. Governor Chris Christie is 54. Rosie Perez is 52. Idris Elba is 44.
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