Page last updated at 20:29 GMT, Monday, 1 August 2005 21:29 UK

Supermarket tills ring changes over years

By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Sainsbury's used to be solely a south of England supermarket outfit
Supermarkets can now be based outside of town

I am old enough to remember the coming of the first supermarket to the small Lincolnshire town where I lived in the east of England in the late 1950s.

It was a long-gone name, Fine Fare, and we had never seen anything like it with its huge provision of goods.

Before, we had shopped in a superior grocers where each packet of cornflakes was fetched down from the display by an attendant with "grabber hands" on a stick.

Now we had choice, real choice, for the first time, with 3,000, maybe 6,000 items on the self-service shelves, rather than the hundreds we had been used to.

No more broken biscuits in their tins with glass lids uncrisping the contents every time the lid was opened to the air.

And, for the first time in our town, a choice of spices.

French days

Indeed, what a revolution in British taste was ushered in by the coming of that American fad, the supermarket.

Cookery writer Elizabeth David would have done nothing for English cuisine if the ingredients she marvelled at in France had not become available through the wonders of supermarket buying power and distribution.

(Remember that Ms David started writing about France in the days when an Englishman abroad was restricted from spending more than 10 per trip by foreign currency regulation.)

It is easy to forget the limited choice we had when retailing was in the hands of local shops for local people.

And space restrictions meant stocking variations on leading lines, such as selling diet cola, could not be considered.

Bike delivery

Shops had to be within walking distance, and instead of choice they provided service.

My mother's grocery list, rarely changed, would be dropped in one afternoon and delivered by bicycle the next.

This service has long vanished, along with most of the local grocers that delivered it.

It took some time for the next generation of supermarkets to appear.

The 1960s and the 1970s saw big self-service chains consolidating their hold on the grocery market, competing on special offers, price and discount stamps.

They were big but cheap, and often - like Sainsbury's - family owned and shaped by traditional values. Sainsbury's catered for the south of England and was unknown north of Birmingham.

Pink stamps

But something really significant happened on the day of Queen Elizabeth II's official Silver Jubilee, in 1977.

Tesco, famed for piling goods high and selling them cheap under the market trader influence of its founder Sir Jack Cohen, spent the Jubilee holiday changing its spots, and it stores, on the beginning of a long journey.

Out went the pink stamps on which it had built its bargain basement reputation ; in came a value-for-money appeal to the new middle class consumer.

The company gradually changed the face of first the High Street, and then the shopping mall.

This was uncanny responsiveness, from an unlikely business, to the way that Britain was getting richer year by year. The revolution was led by Jack Cohen's son-in-law Leslie Porter, who was later knighted and who died earlier this year.

Bottled water

Growing disposable income meant proportionately less of the family income spent on food, and more on things such as travel.

Travel broadened the mind, and increased the appetite of even the unadventurous British for a choice of food.

And drink; everyday wine, and eventually bottled water, Continental-style.

As the recent history of retailing shows, ever-increasing choice gave the post-war consumer the thrill of the hunt. But some time soon all that choosing might just become tiresome.

Big choice meant bigger premises; increasing car ownership allowed the supermarkets to flee to the edge of cities where there was room to spread.

The other mighty supermarket upheaval - now taken for granted - is the rise of the own label range, pioneered in Britain by Sainsbury's.

Perhaps they did it in imitation of the powerful Migros chain in Switzerland, long the home of good produce in superior own brand packaging; perhaps they were following 40 years after Marks and Spencer.

It is hard to remember now that original own brands (apart from St Michael) were apologetic.

They often felt second rate; they imitated the style or colour of the brand (navy blue for a milk chocolate imitation of Cadbury's) without the conviction of the "real" brand they were making reference to.

Tesco dominant

Marks and Spencer had always been run with a conviction that it and its brands knew best and were best.

Sainsbury's and Tesco spent decades learning that lesson, but eventually they turned their own shadow brands into powerful and unapologetic profit centres.

As the record shows, Tesco navigated the shoals of developing consumer tastes through the final quarter of the 20th century more sure-footedly than any other retailer.

They have been rewarded with an unprecedented share of the retail market: in the UK 1 in every 8 is now spent in Tesco, and that's rising.

But nothing goes on forever. As the recent history of retailing shows, ever-increasing choice gave the post-war consumer the thrill of the hunt.

But some time soon all that choosing might just become tiresome.

Time to revive the delivery boy's bicycle, perhaps? Well, as we'll see in the next Work in Progress that's exactly what the supermarkets are doing.


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