A typical U.S. supermarket carries 42,000 items: Grab a cart, stroll the aisles and help yourself to an extravagant assortment of goods. Today it’s hard to imagine buying groceries any other way. But self-service was a game-changer when Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tenn., 100 years ago this month.

Before then a shopper would hand his grocery list to a clerk, who would fetch the merchandise while the customer lingered up front. That might sound appealing in this era of big-box stores with no help in sight, but at busy times the wait could stretch uncomfortably long.

Saunders, a school dropout who worked as a flour and grain salesman, had observed firsthand the inefficiencies of the rural grocers he supplied. Many of these stores, he became convinced, failed for two reasons: credit losses from customers’ charge accounts (which were then customary), and labor costs from clerks and delivery boys.

The 35-year-old Saunders set out to “slay the demon of high prices,” as he teased in an announcement. He reasoned that shoppers would gladly hand-select their own merchandise, and pay upfront, in exchange for lower prices and faster shopping. Coin-operated cafeterias had demonstrated as much with self-service sandwiches and desserts.

King Piggly Wiggly, as Saunders christened his first store, opened Sept. 6, 1916. It stocked 1,000 products, four times the variety of a typical market. Customers entered through a turnstile and, basket in hand, followed a path through the aisles. Goods were neatly arranged with clearly marked prices, something heretofore unseen. There were even scales for shoppers to weigh sugar and other staples.

The grand opening was a spectacle, featuring a beauty contest filmed with a still-novel contraption: the “moving picture machine.” Ever the shrewd marketer, Saunders chose as judges the advertising managers from three daily newspapers. Each woman entering the store received a flower and every child a balloon. A brass band played.

Despite the unusual cash-and-carry policy, and the lack of clerks to gather items, Piggly Wiggly succeeded almost immediately. Saunders announced that “487 customers actually bought goods from us on our first day.” Within a year, he opened eight more stores in the Memphis area.

Eager to protect his invention, Saunders applied for multiple patents. His first, for a “Self Serving Store,” was granted in 1917. It wasn’t long, though, before imitators like Handy Andy and Helpy Selfy made their debut. Saunders successfully sued an especially brash copycat, Hoggly Woggly, for infringement.

By 1923, according to the Jan. 3, 1949, edition of Life magazine, more than 1,200 Piggly Wiggly stores across dozens of states were doing $100 million annually (about $1.4 billion in today’s dollars). The company hit 2,600 stores by 1932, though Saunders by then had been forced out of the company in a battle with Wall Street investors.

Saunders didn’t integrate circuits or sequence the human genome. An observer once noted that coming up with a self-service grocery was “as simple as looking out the window or scratching your ear.” Still, it was Saunders who gambled on the unconventional approach, doggedly spread self-service across the nation and shaped the grocery industry we know today.

Source: The Wall Street Journal