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Happy Birthday Sainsbury's

150 Years of Supermarket History

Sainsbury’s was founded in 1869 on 173 Drury Lane, London, 150 years ago. The archive team thought this would be a good opportunity to showcase some of the highlights of the company’s history.

When the first store was opened Sainsbury’s only sold three items, eggs, milk and butter. At a time when contamination of food was rife, with milk frequently watered down and colouring added, the couple’s declared aim was to have ‘The best Butter in London’ which would be pure and sold in a clean environment. It is said that it was Mary Ann that was responsible for the cleanliness of the shop and Sainsbury’s became famous for the quality of its butter.

The young couple, and it is important to mention that when they opened their first shop John James was 24 and Mary Ann was only 19, did so well with their Drury Lane shop that in about 1873 they opened their second branch. It was a remarkable achievement to have opened a second shop in only 4 years. This second shop was at 159 Queens Crescent, Kentish Town – an area which had rapidly been sucked into the ever increasing metropolitan sprawl of the London suburbs. This shop was equally as successful and two years later they bought a third shop – four doors down at 151 Queens Crescent, then a third branch was added six years after that at number 98. These were known as ‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ Sains. At middle Sains there was a mechanical cow which was a machine that would dispense milk while the shop was closed by inserting a coin and pulling a lever. Unfortunately we don’t have any photographs of this mythical animal in the archive so I can’t show you how it worked!

Expansion then followed the same pattern as that of the growth of London, with branches being purchased within busy market streets, and then with shops in London suburbs. The hours of trading in the market streets were long – with a policeman blowing a whistle at 6am to indicate the start of trading and staff working till the early hours of the morning to catch the trade from people leaving nearby pubs. This was made significantly worse on Saturday evenings because it was payday – with customers arriving with beer mug in hand and the staff clearing them away at the end of the night and returning them to the local landlord.

In 1882 Sainsbury opened the first shop outside of London at 11 London Road, Croydon. This was the first shop to be opened in the ‘house style’ which later branches all followed. John James’ spent large amounts of money fitting out the shop – with marble signs proudly displaying the shop name on the outside of the building and a large mahogany screen separating the front of the shop with the back office operations and branch manager’s office. This approach was for two reasons – the first to look attractive to customers making shopping a real experience, but the second was arguably more important – to keep the shops cool and hygienic. The highly glazed tiles were produced specifically for Sainsbury’s by Minton with the tiles on the counter fronts were glazed in what Minton’s termed ‘Sainsbury’s teapot brown’.

In 1903 John James purchased a number of shops from Tom Deacock. One of these shops was a grocery store which stocked tea, sugar, coffee, cocoa, canned fruit and canned fish – all products unavailable at Sainsbury’s other branches at the time. John James decided to add them to his steadily growing product range.  It’ll come as no surprise to you that the introduction of tea was particularly successful. Each blend was named after the colour of the seal on it’s packet – which in turn related to the price and quality of the tea. Blue label tea was sold a 1 shilling and 2 pence a pound, Green label at 1 shilling 4 pence a pound and Red label at 1 shilling and 6 pence a pound. You can still buy Red Label tea at Sainsbury’s and it is the longest selling product that Sainsbury’s produce.

The outbreak of WW1 brought many changes to the business, including delivery and payment options but the most dramatic effect was that on staffing levels. At the Norwich branch the manager and his deputy has to run the shop alone, when the whole of the rest of the staff enlisted at once. Staffing problems were made worse by Sainsbury’s reliance on young men in the 18-25 age group. Faced with a depleted workforce Sainsbury’s began to recruit women. The women took up the same roles as the men, but with one difference – the shops were required to provide them with a chair to sit on behind the counter.

By the end of the war around a third of the shops were managed by women. It took a long time for staffing arrangements to return to its pre-war norm.  Demobilised men were sent to the Blackfriars training school for refresher courses before returning to their pre-war jobs. Most of the women who had taken their places were either paid off or given jobs in the new grocery departments which were added to larger branches from 1920 onwards. A few women, however, kept their wartime seniority. Alice Hayes, who had been manager of the store at 43 High Street, Islington, was demoted to saleswoman when a new male manager was appointed in December 1919; but her talents had been recognised, and when the post of manager at 159 Queen’s Crescent, Kentish Town became vacant three months later, she was offered the job and remained there until July 1931. There were many men that did not return. A study of the employment records at the time suggests around 500 male employees died during the war and twice as many sustained serious injuries. This equates to, on average, every one of Sainsbury’s 128 branches losing four of its staff.

Most of the stores in the interwar years had six departments: diary, bacon and hams, poultry and game, cooked meats, fresh meant, and groceries. This meant that most Sainsbury’s stores were larger than its competitors’. This period was a time of excess and Sainsbury’s were quick to offer the customer the best quality and variety of produce – stoking forty or fifty different cheeses alone.

At the outbreak of the Second World War Sainsbury’s were much better prepared for wartime trading and immediately began to recruit women as soon as war was declared. However, the slower rate of conscription meant that the company’s wage bill increased by £100,000 per week as they were paying both the male and female wages. Inevitably some shops were damaged in the bombing raids of the blitz. Sainsbury’s staff came up with some creative solutions and offered a number of alternative shopping arrangement for its customers. One manager set up a makeshift shop on stalls outside on the street when an unexploded bomb was found in his basement and the East Grinstead branch which was moved in its entirety to the village church after it was destroyed. It proved to be quite popular and the shop remained in the church until the mid 1950s.

After the end of the Second World War, Alan Sainsbury, made a trip to the United States. He took note of the incredibly different way that America stocked and sold food in supermarkets and decided that this is where the future of food shopping in Britain lay. In 1950 the first of Sainsbury’s self-service shops was opened back at 9/11 London Road Croydon. While most customers were pleased with the changes as it allowed customers to shop at their leisure, there was less queuing and much more choice of produce, self – service was not universally loved. We’ve heard a story of lady who when told about the new style of shopping refused to carry her own items and made the shop manager walk round the shop with her placing her selected items in the basket for her.

The demands of self-service trading led to a revolution in the design of Sainsbury’s food packaging. Packaging needed to be both hygienic and robust to protect food from repeated handing by customers. It also had to be a ‘silent salesman’ by being pleasing to the eye and informative. To meet this challenge Sainsbury’s appointed Leonard Beaumont as design consultant in 1950. At a time when most manufacturers were using complex and often garish packaging, Beaumont developed for Sainsbury’s a design standard which involved the use of just two typefaces. Associated with these was the use of stylised graphics and muted colours to create a clean, fresh image. 

In the early 1960s Sainsbury’s introduced their ‘Own Label’ brand with the in house design team responsible for creating striking but practical packaging brought about by the popularity in self-service shopping and the changes to British domestic life. It was over the period between the 1960s and 70s that saw a seismic shift in the way that households functioned, and Sainsbury’s had a role in driving developments around food shopping. Selling convenience food to working mothers and Mediterranean ingredients to those who had just taken their first foreign holiday, the supermarket was integral to the social change of the period.

These large, new self-service stores allowed the introduction of modern technology. The most important innovation was the use of more sophisticated computer ordering systems, and Sainsbury’s became the first supermarket chain in Britain to introduce computerised stock control. However, the last counter service branch – the branch in Peckham - didn’t close until the summer of 1982. 

It wasn’t until 1992 that Sainsbury’s became a fully national supermarket chain when they opened the first Branch in Scotland. Shopping has now come full circle with Sainsbury’s introducing locals in 1998 and returning to high-street shopping. I like to illustrate this using 9/11 London Road as an example – the first shop to introduce house style, then the first self-service store, after a brief time as a Weatherspoons it’s now back as a Sainsbury’s local.

These days Sainsbury’s have just over 1400 shops, selling over 40,000 items of produce and employing over 160,000 members of staff – a world away from John James and Mary Ann and their little shop on Drury Lane.

If you have any stories of working for Sainsbury’s over the years, we’d love for you to share them with us