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Reflections: Clarence Saunders' idea revolutionized food shopping

The nation’s first true supermarket – the Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tenn. – as it appeared in 1918, two years after it opened.
The nation’s first true supermarket – the Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tenn. – as it appeared in 1918, two years after it opened.

Clarence Saunders thought he had a better idea, and as it turned out, he actually did. On Sept. 9, 1916, Saunders revolutionized the grocery trade when he opened the nation’s first true supermarket – the Piggly Wiggly – at 79 Jefferson Ave. in Memphis, Tennessee.

Until Saunders had his retail brainstorm, customers went to the grocery store’s counter and gave the grocer a list of what they wanted. Then either the grocer or his employee would go throughout the store collecting items, and either bring them back so the customer could take them home, or package them up and deliver them to the customer's house.

Where did he get the odd name, Piggly Wiggly? Once someone asked Saunders where he came up with the name, to which Saunders’ only reply was “So people will ask that very question.” So your guess is as good as mine.

Saunders’ idea, as noted above, created a marketing revolution. Customers could wander the store’s aisles and select their own groceries, which they put in a basket supplied by the store before returning to the counter to check out.

The grocery-buying public, at first, really didn’t know what to make of this newfangled idea that some called the basket grocery and others called a groceteria – like a cafeteria, only with groceries instead of a hot lunch.

Along with his self-service idea, Saunders’ store was also the first to boast a price tag on each item, check-out stands where employees rang up customers’ purchases, and, a couple decades later, providing customers with the nation’s first shopping carts.

Meanwhile, out in Ottumwa, Iowa, my wife’s grandfather, Frank Musselman, was engaged in the grocery business with his partner, Fred Kent. Unfortunately, Frank wasn’t as good a businessman as he was a promoter. While he drew customers to the store, he wasn’t much help on the business side.

He broke up with Kent in order to try Saunders’ new idea of a groceteria in downtown Ottumwa. He opened the Model Basket Grocery, the first in town, in the autumn of 1918, but his poor business skills again worked against him. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, just a few days after he’d finalized a recovery deal with his creditors, he contracted what they were calling the Spanish Influenza. Nine days later, he died at the age of 38 (he was one of five young Ottumwa men to die in the flu pandemic that Oct. 27), leaving behind his progressive business idea for a basket grocery, along with a wife and two small children.

A lot more grocers than just one innovative fellow in southern Iowa were trying out Saunders’ ideas, however, and the grocery business began changing significantly.

Back in those days, service was the main thing grocery stores offered. Stay-at-home moms were the rule, not the exception, then. A call by telephone or a visit in person gave the store a list of groceries wanted. The order was then filled by grocery store owners or employees, and then delivered. Original delivery wagons were horse-drawn, but as soon as internal combustion engines were perfected, delivery trucks became common sights around Kendall County towns.

By 1922, all three of Oswego’s grocery stores, Biesemier & Hettrick, W.F. Morse, and Schultz Brothers, were delivering groceries by truck.

And they didn’t only deliver to folks living in town, either. In the July 29, 1914, Kendall County Record, Oswego grocer W.F. Morse notified farmers who were just getting started with that year’s threshing of oats, wheat, barley and rye that they were ready to make sure there was no hold-up due to lack of supplies. “Threshing orders delivered free of charge by W.F. Morse,” an advertisement adjacent to the Record’s “Oswego” news column advertised.

Frozen foods were another innovation that added variety to local grocery store shelves. In April 1940, the Record advised its Oswego readers that the flash-frozen foods pioneered by Clarence Birdseye were available at the village’s Schultz Grocery Store. “If you want to see something good to eat, just step into the Schultz grocery store and ask to see the frozen foods he has on display,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent invited.

Not that frozen foods were that new an item, even in little Kendall County. In July 1937, when they announced plans for their new headquarters in downtown Yorkville, the Kendall County Farm Bureau noted that one of the major features of the new structure would be a cold storage locker plant where Farm Bureau members could rent space to store frozen meat and other food items.

After World War II, more changes loomed in the grocery business in small-town America. Saunders’ 1939 innovation of shopping carts finally made it to even smaller towns, as did the concept of the “supermarket.” In 1946, when Carl Bohn bought Charles Schultz’s booming grocery store at the busy corner of Washington and Main streets in downtown Oswego, he named the new business Bohn’s Super Mart, eventually incorporating shopping carts.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, a number of changes and innovations in the grocery business had been taking place, many prompted by Clarence Saunders, among them the concept of chain stores, something local retailers have fought up to the present day. In February 1930, the Record noted approvingly that radio firebrand W.K. Henderson was conducing “a remarkably able campaign against the Foreign Chain Store Menace.”

But gradually, the Piggly Wiggly, A&P, Kroger and other chains forced local groceries from the business. Downtown Oswego’s last locally owned grocery, Bohn’s Food Store, closed in 1981. But then, in turn, the superstores – also sometimes called hypermarts – perfected by Walmart, Meijer, Target and other retailers seriously cut into the grocery chains’ business. These days, you can buy groceries at Menard’s building supply stores, Farm & Fleet stores and at Walgreens and other drug stores to the point that the definition of “grocery store” has become nearly meaningless.

But every time you walk into one of today’s super retail stores and use a shopping cart to collect your purchases, from steaks to shoes, you can justly give a tip of your imaginary hat to good old Clarence Saunders and his business innovations.

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